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Monday, January 16, 2023

The origins of human prosociality: Cultural group selection in the workplace and the laboratory

Francois, P., Fujiwara, T., & van Ypersele, T. (2018).
Science Advances, 4(9).


Human prosociality toward non-kin is ubiquitous and almost unique in the animal kingdom. It remains poorly understood, although a proliferation of theories has arisen to explain it. We present evidence from survey data and laboratory treatment of experimental subjects that is consistent with a set of theories based on group-level selection of cultural norms favoring prosociality. In particular, increases in competition increase trust levels of individuals who (i) work in firms facing more competition, (ii) live in states where competition increases, (iii) move to more competitive industries, and (iv) are placed into groups facing higher competition in a laboratory experiment. The findings provide support for cultural group selection as a contributor to human prosociality.


There is considerable experimental evidence, referenced earlier, supporting the conclusion that people are conditional cooperators: They condition actions based on their beliefs regarding prevailing norms of behavior. They cooperate if they believe their partners are also likely to do so, and they are unlikely to act cooperatively if they believe that others will not.

The environment in which people interact shapes both the social and economic returns to following cooperative norms. For instance, many aspects of groups within the work environment will determine whether cooperation can be an equilibrium in behavior among group members or whether it is strictly dominated by more selfish actions. Competition across firms can play two distinct roles in affecting this. First, there is a static equilibrium effect, which arises from competition altering rewards from cooperative versus selfish behavior, even without changing the distribution of firms. Competition across firms punishes individual free-riding behavior and rewards cooperative behavior. In the absence of competitive threats, members of groups can readily shirk without serious payoff consequences for their firm. This is not so if a firm faces an existential threat. Less markedly, even if a firm is not close to the brink of survival, more intense market competition renders firm-level payoffs more responsive to the efforts of group members. With intense competition, the deleterious effects of shirking are magnified by large loss of market share, revenues, and, in turn, lower group-level payoffs. Without competition, attendant declines in quality or efficiency arising from poor performance have weaker, and perhaps nonexistent, payoff consequences. These effects on individuals are likely to be small in large firms where any specific worker’s actions are unlikely to be pivotal. However, it is possible that employees overestimate the impact of their actions or instinctively respond to competition with more prosocial attitudes, even in large teams.

Competition across firms does not typically lead to a unique equilibrium in social norms but, if intense enough, can sustain a cooperative group norm. Depending on the setting, multiple different cooperative group equilibria differentiated by the level of costly effort can also be sustained. For example, if individuals are complementary in production, then an individual believing co-workers to all be shirkers and thus unable to produce a viable product will similarly also choose to exert low effort. An equilibrium where no one voluntarily contributes to cooperative tasks is sustained, and such a workplace looks to have noncooperative norms. In contrast, with the same complementary production process, and a workplace where all other workers are believed to be contributing high effort, a single worker will optimally choose to exert high effort as well to ensure viable output. In that case, a cooperative norm is sustained. When payoffs are continuous in both the quality of the product and the intensity of the competition, then the degree of cooperative effort that can be sustained can be continuously increasing in the intensity of market competition across firms. We have formalized this in an economic model that we include in the Supplementary Materials.

Competition’s first effect is thus to make it possible, but not necessary, for group-level cooperative norms to arise as equilibria. The literature has shown that there are many other ways to stabilize cooperative norms as equilibria, such as institutional punishment, third-party punishment, or reputations. Cross-group competition may also enhance these other well-studied mechanisms for generating cooperative norm equilibria, but with or without these factors, it has a general effect of tilting the set of equilibria toward those featuring cooperative norms.