Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Interaction between games give rise to the evolution of moral norms of cooperation

Salahshour M (2022)
PLoS Comput Biol 18(9): e1010429.


In many biological populations, such as human groups, individuals face a complex strategic setting, where they need to make strategic decisions over a diverse set of issues and their behavior in one strategic context can affect their decisions in another. This raises the question of how the interaction between different strategic contexts affects individuals’ strategic choices and social norms? To address this question, I introduce a framework where individuals play two games with different structures and decide upon their strategy in a second game based on their knowledge of their opponent’s strategy in the first game. I consider both multistage games, where the same opponents play the two games consecutively, and reputation-based model, where individuals play their two games with different opponents but receive information about their opponent’s strategy. By considering a case where the first game is a social dilemma, I show that when the second game is a coordination or anti-coordination game, the Nash equilibrium of the coupled game can be decomposed into two classes, a defective equilibrium which is composed of two simple equilibrium of the two games, and a cooperative equilibrium, in which coupling between the two games emerge and sustain cooperation in the social dilemma. For the existence of the cooperative equilibrium, the cost of cooperation should be smaller than a value determined by the structure of the second game. Investigation of the evolutionary dynamics shows that a cooperative fixed point exists when the second game belongs to coordination or anti-coordination class in a mixed population. However, the basin of attraction of the cooperative fixed point is much smaller for the coordination class, and this fixed point disappears in a structured population. When the second game belongs to the anti-coordination class, the system possesses a spontaneous symmetry-breaking phase transition above which the symmetry between cooperation and defection breaks. A set of cooperation supporting moral norms emerges according to which cooperation stands out as a valuable trait. Notably, the moral system also brings a more efficient allocation of resources in the second game. This observation suggests a moral system has two different roles: Promotion of cooperation, which is against individuals’ self-interest but beneficial for the population, and promotion of organization and order, which is at both the population’s and the individual’s self-interest. Interestingly, the latter acts like a Trojan horse: Once established out of individuals’ self-interest, it brings the former with itself. Importantly, the fact that the evolution of moral norms depends only on the cost of cooperation and is independent of the benefit of cooperation implies that moral norms can be harmful and incur a pure collective cost, yet they are just as effective in promoting order and organization. Finally, the model predicts that recognition noise can have a surprisingly positive effect on the evolution of moral norms and facilitates cooperation in the Snow Drift game in structured populations.

Author summary

How do moral norms spontaneously evolve in the presence of selfish incentives? An answer to this question is provided by the observation that moral systems have two distinct functions: Besides encouraging self-sacrificing cooperation, they also bring organization and order into the societies. In contrast to the former, which is costly for the individuals but beneficial for the group, the latter is beneficial for both the group and the individuals. A simple evolutionary model suggests this latter aspect is what makes a moral system evolve based on the individuals’ self-interest. However, a moral system behaves like a Trojan horse: Once established out of the individuals’ self-interest to promote order and organization, it also brings self-sacrificing cooperation.