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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

How neurons, norms, and institutions shape group cooperation

Van Bavel, J. J., Pärnamets, P., Reinero, D. A., 
& Packer, D. (2022, April 7).


Cooperation occurs at all stages of human life and is necessary for small groups and large-scale societies alike to emerge and thrive. This chapter bridges research in the fields of cognitive neuroscience, neuroeconomics, and social psychology to help understand group cooperation. We present a value-based framework for understanding cooperation, integrating neuroeconomic models of decision-making with psychological and situational variables involved in cooperative behavior, particularly in groups. According to our framework, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex serves as a neural integration hub for value computation during cooperative decisions, receiving inputs from various neuro-cognitive processes such as attention, affect, memory, and learning. We describe factors that directly or indirectly shape the value of cooperation decisions, including cultural contexts and social norms, personal and social identity, and intergroup relations. We also highlight the role of economic, social, and cultural institutions in shaping cooperative behavior. We discuss the implications for future research on cooperation.


Social Institutions

Trust production is crucial for fostering cooperation (Zucker, 1986). We have already discussed two forms of trust production above: the trust and resulting cooperation that develops from experience with and knowledge about individuals, and trust based on social identities. The third form of trust production is institution-based, in which formal mechanisms or processes are used to foster trust (and that do not rely on personal characteristics, a history of exchange, or identity characteristics). At the societal level, trust-supporting institutions include governments, corporate structures, criminal and civil legal systems, contract law and property rights, insurance, and stock markets. When they function effectively, institutions allow for broader cooperation, helping people extend trust beyond other people they know or know of and, crucially, also beyond the boundaries of their in-groups (Fabbri, 2022; Hruschka & Henrich, 2013; Rothstein & Stolle, 2008; Zucker, 1986). Conversely, when these sorts of structures do not function well, “institutional distrust strips away a basic sense that one is protected from exploitation, thus reducing trust between strangers, which is at the core of functioning societies” (van Prooijen, Spadaro, & Wang, 2022).

When strangers with different cultural backgrounds have to interact, it often lacks the interpersonal or group-level trust necessary for cooperation. For instance, reliance on tightly-knit social networks, where everyone knows everyone, is often impossible in larger, more diverse environments. Communities can compensate by relying more on group-based trust. For example, banks may loan money primarily within separate kin or ethnic groups (Zucker, 1986). However, the disruption of homogeneous social networks, combined with the increasing need to cooperate across group boundaries creates incentives to develop and participate in broader sets of institutions. Institutions can facilitate cooperation and individuals prefer institutions that help regulate interactions and foster trust.

People often may seek to build institutions embodying principles, norms, rules, or procedures that foster group-based cooperation. In turn, these institutions shape decisions by altering the value people place oncooperative decisions. One study, for instance, examined these institutional and psychological dynamics over 30 rounds of a public goods game (Gürerk, Irlenbusch & Rockenbach, 2006). Every round had three stages. First, participants chose whether they wanted to play that round with or without a “sanctioning institution” that would provide a means of rewarding or punishing other players based on their behavior in the game. Second, they played the public goods game with (and onlywith) other participants whohad selected the same institutional structure for that round. After making their decisions (to contribute to the common pool), they then saw how much everyone else in their institutional context had contributed. Third, participants who had opted to play the round with a sanctioning institution could choose, for a price, to punish or reward other players.