Research suggests cooperative behaviour is not instinctive, but learned

July 8, 2015, Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica
Research suggests cooperative behaviour is not instinctive, but learned

Cooperative behaviour is not an instinctive impulse or deliberate choice, but a learning process. Researchers of CWI and LUISS Guido Carli in Rome showed in an experiment that people living in a low-trust society intuitively choose non-cooperation in games. However, after playing several times their intuitive choices become more cooperative. The results are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Wednesday 8 July.

The human ability to cooperate with strangers is an evolutionary puzzle. In most , cooperation is only observed among kin or in very small groups where future interactions are likely. To explore the nature of , the researchers compared decision-making in economic games between high-trust and low-trust societies.

Prisoner's dilemma

The researchers let 449 participants from India, a society that ranks very poor in corruption and cronyism indices, play a variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma game. Two participants who were unable to communicate, were given a small sum of money and were told that they could either keep it, or transfer some to the other person who would then receive double that amount. Transferring money is potentially rewarding, but only if both decide to transfer. The participants were selected through Amazon Mechanical Turk and tested on their understanding of the game.

The researchers found that Indians transferred far less money (28% on average) than their American counterparts did in previous experiments (52% on average), both under time pressure (intuitive decision) and with a reflection period (deliberate decision). Researcher Valerio Capraro of CWI's Networks & Optimization group says: "These results are hard to explain by either demographics or methodological differences between the experiments. It therefore seems likely that choices whether to cooperate with strangers are based on exposure to either cooperative or non-cooperative actions in everyday live. In a high-trust society like the USA cooperative strategies might be successful, whereas non-cooperative behaviour might be the best choice in India."

However, there were also differences between Indian participants. Those who had previously played games like these, were more likely to cooperate under time pressure. "We show that cooperative behaviour can be learned, and that this is mostly an intuitive reaction," says Capraro. "Our subjects tended to abandon their default, non-cooperative strategy and start to cooperate". Understanding the mechanisms underlying the emergence of cooperation from a non-cooperative setting is a topic of major interest for future research.

Economic interactions

"Cooperation is fundamental to the success of personal and professional relationships as well as economic interactions.", Giorgia Cococcioni (LUISS Guido Carli), says. "For instance, if several companies need the same raw material for their product, they will benefit from a joint purchase order. This lower production costs would benefit both company and consumer, but to achieve this the companies need to trust each other."

The researchers stresses that individual histories and the societal context should be taken into account to be able to really understand how people cooperate with each other. Capraro: "We need more flexible models that realize that people can learn to be cooperative in specific contexts. It is for instance very possible that our experiment will give very different results in a few decades, if the Indian government is successful in its fight against corruption."

Explore further: Solving the puzzle of cooperation in group environments

More information: "Social Setting, Intuition, and Experience in Lab Experiments Interact to Shape Cooperative Decision-Making (June 9, 2015)." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Available at SSRN: or

Related Stories

Solving the puzzle of cooperation in group environments

November 13, 2014

Research has shown that when two individuals meet repeatedly they are more likely to cooperate with one another. Flávio Pinheiro and colleagues from the Universities of Minho and Lisbon show that the most successful strategy ...

Focusing on the success of others can make us selfish

February 17, 2015

It is believed that the success of humans as a species depends to a large extent on our ability to cooperate in groups. Much more so than any other ape (or mammal for that matter), people are able to work together and coordinate ...

Cooperative communities emerge in transparent social networks

March 9, 2015

People in a society are bound together by a set of connections - a social network. Cooperation between people in the network is essential for societies to prosper, and the question of what drives the emergence and sustainability ...

Men and women cooperate equally for the common good

September 22, 2011

Stereotypes suggest women are more cooperative than men, but an analysis of 50 years of research shows that men are equally cooperative, particularly in situations involving a dilemma that pits the interests of an individual ...

Recommended for you

How other people affect our interpersonal space

May 24, 2018

Have you ever felt the urge to cross the road or move seats on a train after a conversation taking place nearby suddenly becomes aggressive? Well, for the first time a scientific study has shown how the size of your interpersonal ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.4 / 5 (5) Jul 08, 2015
Cooperation is a theme of all forms of life from the very first where several chemical processes work in a cooperative feedback process to form cells to quorum sensing and cooperative behaviour in bacteria to symbiogenesis of eukaryotic cell to multiple cell organisms to sexual reproduction (a cooperative event) to colonies of animals and so on.

There are trillions of cells in the human body, all cooperating to produce the organism. The individual formed by these cooperating cells shares 100% of their DNA with these cooperative living organisms and yet, despite 3 billion years of cooperative behaviour, these researchers claim that cooperation is learned?

Yes, the *method* of cooperation in human societies is learned and not innate as it is in other creatures and this they have confirmed. But the underlying drives toward cooperative behaviour are ancient.
3.4 / 5 (5) Jul 09, 2015
But this does not mean that it is the only drive and competing drives are well known eg self preservation, family, tribe and national loyalty are competing drives.

Although there is a choice, almost no-one chooses total individualism indicating that cooperation and coalition forming is innate but the form is learned and the scale is subject to competing interests.

In psychiatry, one of the common causes of depression is an individual's isolationism that may be caused because they do not know how to form relationships or make friends. This clearly shows the division between learned and innate. Loneliness generally is a common cause of depression and a significant driver of suicidal ideation ~ most humans would rather be dead than alone.

Clearly, a drive to cooperation is innate.
Jul 09, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 09, 2015
Clearly, a drive to cooperation is innate.
-- RobertKarlStonjek (RKS)

Many theorists have learned that they have no choice but to co-operate with others. That is much easier than learning the facts about RNA-mediated events, which have been established via the experimental evidence from serious scientists.

RKS is the moderator of several FB groups. None seem to be remotely linked to what is being discussed or ignored by participants in the other groups.

His claim that "...a drive to cooperation is innate" cannot be linked to the evolution of behavior via anything known to me about the biophysically constrained chemistry of nutrient-dependent protein folding, which links nutrient-dependent microRNAs to the organized genomes of all living genera via control of virus-driven entropic elasticity, which perturbs protein folding via the accumulation of viral microRNAs.

Starting with an innate "drive" to cooperate is inconsistent with evolutionary theory.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 09, 2015
Cooperation is a theme of all forms of life from the very first where several chemical processes work in a cooperative feedback process to form cells to quorum sensing and cooperative behaviour in bacteria to symbiogenesis of eukaryotic cell to multiple cell organisms to sexual reproduction (a cooperative event) to colonies of animals and so on.
-- RobertKarlStonjek (RKS)

RKS banned me from his evolutionary psychology yahoo group, but now touts my detailed model of how cell type differentiation occurs in species from microbes to man.

The chemical processes he alludes to are nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled in species from microbes to man via their biophysically constrained chemistry of RNA-mediated protein folding.

See: Nutrient-dependent/pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution: a model.

"Adaptive evolution" is the term I use for ecological adaptation because most reviewers cooperate with theorists.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 09, 2015
I hope that Robert Karl Stonjek (RKS) will accept my sincere apology and my thanks for his efforts to inform others via his yahoo groups and his FB groups.

His dedication is remarkable. Without it, others could not learn from experience about how a paradigm shift occurs across a single generation.

See, for example: http://www.fronti...14.00113

Excerpt: "With rapid advances in sequencing technologies, we are undergoing a paradigm shift from hypothesis- to data-driven research."

I have the greatest respect for those who are willing to inform others whether or not they acknowledge and/or accept the change to data-driven research, and should not have responded in haste to his comments here, or elsewhere.

I will try to temper my reactions in the future, since I am unable to remove the post I added ~1 hour ago.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 09, 2015
In psychiatry, one of the common causes of depression is an individual's isolationism that may be caused because they do not know how to form relationships or make friends.

Nutrient stress and social stress epigenetically effect the GnRH neurons that modulates our responses to food odors and to human pheromones. Human pheromone-deniers have, until recently, allowed others to ignore everything known to serious scientists about thermodynamic cycles of protein biosynthesis and degradation that link RNA-mediated amino acid substitutions to the organized genomes of all species via fixation of the amino acids in the context of the physiology of reproduction.

The fact that we do not respond to pheromones as if we had the brain of an insect, does not mean we are not responding to food odors and to pheromones via the conserved molecular mechanisms of RNA-mediated cell type differentiation, which are biophysically constrained by protein folding chemistry.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.