behavior; evolutionary biology; criminal punishment; biologists; regression analysis; behavioral economics; economics; social theory
© 2011 Pan, Houser. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Cooperation is indispensable in human societies, and much progress has been made towards understanding human pro-social decisions. Formal incentives, such as punishment, are suggested as potential effective approaches despite the fact that punishment can crowd out intrinsic motives for cooperation and detrimentally impact efficiency. At the same time, evolutionary biologists have long recognized that cooperation, especially food sharing, is typically efficiently organized in groups living on wild foods, even absent formal economic incentives. Despite its evident importance, the source of this voluntary compliance remains largely uninformed. Drawing on costly signaling theory, and in light of the widely established competitive nature of males, we hypothesize that unique and displayable rewards (trophies) out of competition may trigger male generosity in competitive social environments.
Here, we use a controlled laboratory experiment to show that cooperation is sustained in a generosity competition with trophy rewards, but breaks down in the same environment with equally valuable but non-unique and non-displayable rewards. Further, we find that males' competition for trophies is the driving force behind treatment differences. In contrast, it appears that female competitiveness is not modulated by trophy rewards.
Our results suggest new approaches to promoting cooperation in human groups that, unlike punishment mechanisms, do not sacrifice efficiency. This could have important implications in any domain where voluntary compliance matters — including relations between spouses, employers and employees, market transactions, and conformity to legal standards.