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Sunday, November 13, 2022

Cross-cultural variation in cooperation: A meta-analysis

Spadaro, G., Graf, C., et al.
JPSP, 123(5), 1024–1088.


Impersonal cooperation among strangers enables societies to create valuable public goods, such as infrastructure, public services, and democracy. Several factors have been proposed to explain variation in impersonal cooperation across societies, referring to institutions (e.g., rule of law), religion (e.g., belief in God as a third-party punisher), cultural beliefs (e.g., trust) and values (e.g., collectivism), and ecology (e.g., relational mobility). We tested 17 preregistered hypotheses in a meta-analysis of 1,506 studies of impersonal cooperation in social dilemmas (e.g., the Public Goods Game) conducted across 70 societies (k = 2,271), where people make costly decisions to cooperate among strangers. After controlling for 10 study characteristics that can affect the outcome of studies, we found very little cross-societal variation in impersonal cooperation. Categorizing societies into cultural groups explained no variance in cooperation. Similarly, cultural, ancestral, and linguistic distance between societies explained little variance in cooperation. None of the cross-societal factors hypothesized to relate to impersonal cooperation explained variance in cooperation across societies. We replicated these conclusions when meta-analyzing 514 studies across 41 states and nine regions in the United States (k = 783). Thus, we observed that impersonal cooperation occurred in all societies-and to a similar degree across societies-suggesting that prior research may have overemphasized the magnitude of differences between modern societies in impersonal cooperation. We discuss the discrepancy between theory, past empirical research and the meta-analysis, address a limitation of experimental research on cooperation to study culture, and raise possible directions for future research. 


Humans cooperate within multiple domains in daily life, such as sharing common pool resources and producing large-scale public goods. Cooperation can be expressed in many ways, including strategies to favor kin (Hamilton, 1964), allies and coalitional members (Balliet et al., 2014; Yamagishi et al., 1999), and it can even occur in interactions among strangers with no known future interactions (Delton et al., 2011; Macy & Skvoretz, 1998).  Here, we focused on this later kind of impersonal cooperation, in which people interact for the first time, they have no knowledge of their partner’s reputation, and no known possibilities of future interaction outside the experiment. Impersonal cooperation can enable societies to  develop, expand, and compete, impacting wealth and prosperity. Although impersonal cooperation occurs in all modern, industrialized, market-based societies, prior research has documented cross-societal variation in impersonal cooperation (Henrich, Ensminger, et al., 2010; Hermann et al., 2008; Romano et al., 2021). To date, several perspectives have been advanced to explain why and how impersonal cooperation varies across societies.