Research highlight

Evolution: Good reputation promotes social cooperation

Nature Communications

August 10, 2016

People’s concerns about their reputation with an authority figure may encourage them to cooperate with others, according to study of a foraging society of Papua New Guinea published online in Nature Communications this week. This research also suggests that positive social reputation promotes cooperative behaviour more so than punishment of non-cooperators.

A person’s desire to have a particular reputation in a given society is one example of an evolutionary basis of human cooperative behaviour. Past evidence for this human behaviour comes from laboratory settings where one’s social image is artificially created (for example, through computer simulations).

Gianluca Grimalda and colleagues examined the human cooperative behaviour of the Teop, a small and tightly-knit society in Papua New Guinea whose social structure is centred on a village elder with informal authority to impose discipline on community members. This so-called ‘Big Man’ acts as a guardian of morality, and is at the centre of the Teop’s social network. During the course of the study, a group of Teop worked together efficiently in a social economic game while the Big Man was watching - but not intervening. This cooperative behaviour was reduced when an unfamiliar Big Man from another village was watching. Game players also punished non-cooperative members to a lesser degree when the Big Man was watching.

These results show that concern over social image from a real person of social authority can promote cooperative behaviour more so than the imagined concerns about one’s reputation.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms12288

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