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
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
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
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
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 punishment. Herrmann,
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.
- Individuals need to invest in their own individual welfare to
survive, but they also on average do better in life if they
invest in public goods.
- Striking the "right" (optimal) balance between these two
strategies is difficult, because optimality depends on changing
opportunities and other factors such as how reliable the rule of
law is. Also, tradeoffs mean there are many possible good
- Given varying costs and benefits, a population as a whole can
wind up tracking these changing optima by being composed of
members that over- and under-invest in public goods. The
socioeconomic dynamics will drive the balances of costs and
benefits (which depend partly on how many people exploit each
strategy) such that approximately appropriate numbers of people
will exploit the different strategies.
- One of the proximate mechanism for deciding whether to be so
competitive that you punish even altruists is your sense of in-group
identity. Most people won't punish altruists with whom
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
This project derives in part from previous work on understanding
the evolution of human behaviour, particularly:
- Paul Rauwolf, Dominic Mitchell and Joanna J. Bryson, Value
Homophily Benefits Cooperation but Motivates Employing
Incorrect Social Information, Journal of Theoretical
Biology, accepted for publication.
- Daniel J. Taylor, Evolution
of the Social Contract, PhD Dissertation, University
of Bath, November 2014.
- Karolina Sylwester, Benedikt Herrmann, and Joanna J. Bryson, Homo
homini lupus? Explaining antisocial punishment. In Journal of
Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, 6(3):167-188.
Green open access: revised final
version submitted to the publisher (May 2013).
- Joanna J. Bryson, James Mitchell, Simon T. Powers, and
Karolina Sylwester, Understanding
and Addressing Cultural Variation in Costly Antisocial
Punishment. In Applied
Evolutionary Anthropology, Gibson & Lawson (eds.),
- Simon T.
J. Taylor and Joanna J. Bryson, Punishment
can promote defection in group-structured populations,
Journal of Theoretical Biology, 311:107-116.
Kahn, Michael E.
Hochberg, and Joanna J. Bryson, The
role for simulations in theory construction for the social
sciences: Case studies concerning Divergent Modes of
Brain & Behaviour, 2(3):182-224 (including
commentaries and response.) Associated software is in the
electronic appendix and on the AmonI
software page. Bath also hosts open access versions of the
target article and
the response, for
the full PDF (including commentaries) email me.
- Ivana Cace and Joanna J. Bryson, Agent
Based Modelling of Communication Costs: Why Information Can Be
Free, in Emergence and Evolution of Linguistic
Communication C. Lyon, C. L Nehaniv and A. Cangelosi,
eds., pp. 305-322, Springer 2007.
- Joanna J. Bryson, Yasushi Ando and Hagen Lehmann Agent-based
models as scientific methodology: A case study analysing
primate social behaviour, Philosophical Transactions
of the Royal Society, B - Biology, 362(1485):1685-1698,
September 2007. The case analysed in this paper concerns Hemelrijk's
DomWorld, that link includes the associated software.
About the group
The Artificial Models of Natural Intelligence (Amoni) research group
has been exploring the theoretical biology of human culture for some
The beginning of this study was commissioned and sponsored by the US
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
better understand why there should be geographic variation in
what at least superficially appears to be a maladaptive economic
behaviour (anti-social punishment).
to improve the current methodologically state of the art in
collaboration between social simulation / agent based modelling
and the social sciences.
page author: Joanna Bryson
last updated: 22 November 2014