Cultural Variation in Cooperation

While headlines can make us feel that humans tend to treat each other badly, what makes bad news news is that humans in fact are extremely cooperative.  We help strangers without thinking — in fact we are even more likely to help if we don't think much about it.  We live and work with people we are in competition with, yet most of the time we treat them decently. 

The research described here is part of a larger research programme in Cognitive Science.  The Amoni group work to both build cognitive systems and understand cognition in nature.  In humans (and probably other species) much of the power of cognition (thinking) comes from our ability to reuse what others have already thought.  Thus understanding social behaviour is also key to understanding human cognition.

Science is often advanced by comparing two things and asking why they are different.  So we look at cooperation, especially information sharing, in a variety of species.  Since 2010, we've also been looking at  cultural variation in human economic behaviour.  The data we originally worked to explain comes from a type of behavioural economics experiment called public goods games.  Our research has lead us to look at understanding cooperation more broadly, and to look at group formation, culture and identity, the evolution of culture, contracts and ethics.

Altruism, Punishment and Public Goods

Altruism is technically defined as paying a cost in order to benefit another individual.  A cost can be anything — time, money, effort, reputation, or a risk of injury.  Altruism can include contributing to a public good — something that everyone (or at least some other people) can use without necessarily asking for permission.

Evolution can easily account for altruism.  That is because evolution is driven by genes trying to reproduce themselves, and all species share the vast majority of their genes.  Altruism is even easier to explain in families, because families share even more genes.  In humans at least, our behaviour isn't only influenced by our genes, but also by our own individual experience, and by our culture.  One thing scientists study is whether culture works like genes: whether ideas (memes) can also work to make copies of themselves, and in doing that bring people that share them together to cooperate.

Another theory of  cooperation is more negative — that keeping high levels of cooperation requires policing people who would cheat.  Altruistic punishment is paying a cost to punish someone who is not contributing as much as you would to a public good.  When economists doing experiments discovered that some people will altruistically punish, they thought they had discovered the reason humans were so cooperative.  But in fact punishment can go either way.  Punishing those who give more to the public good than the punisher is called anti-social punishmentHerrmann, Thöni & Gächter (Science, 2008) showed that the reason the economists hadn't noticed anti-social punishment at first was because in some places there isn't very much of it, but in other places there are.  So now we have something to explain, and places to compare.

Herrmann and his collaborators showed that rates of anti-social punishment vary not just by place but by global region.  There seems to be more anti-social punishment where people have less money (lower GDP) and where you can't always trust laws to be enforced (low rule of law).   We've since shown that in every city in their data, some people never punish anyone, and some people only punish altruistically.  It seems like what varies is how many people in a society will punish anyone, and anti-social punishment is just a side effect of that.



Results from our research have been presented at a number of meetings, and a number of articles are in preparation or under review.  As they get published we list them here, along with open-access draft versions.  For PDFs of the published offprints, email any author.  Full citations and many more PDFs can be found on Bryson's publications page.

This project derives in part from previous work on understanding the evolution of human behaviour, particularly:


About the group

The Artificial Models of Natural Intelligence (Amoni) research group has been exploring the theoretical biology of human culture for some time.
The beginning of this study was commissioned and sponsored by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Air Force Material Command, USAF, under grant number FA8655-10-1-3050.  We were funded on a collaboration with the Nottingham Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics (CeDEx) specifically to address questions at two very different levels of abstraction:

page author: Joanna Bryson
last updated: 22 November 2014