Positive reputation promotes social cooperation more than punishment

Health & Behavioral Sciences researcher studies Papua New Guinea tribe to show links to modern social networking

August 18, 2016

A new study, co-authored by University of Colorado Denver Health & Behavioral Sciences and Anthropology Professor David P. Tracer, shows that while evolutionary and other economic theories expect humans, like other animals,  to behave selfishly to maximize material gains, human cooperation occurs when reputation is at stake.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, was co-authored by Gianluca Grimalda and Andreas Pondorfer of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Germany.

There are several theories that seek to explain the evolution of cooperation. The two most common link it to social image building and the propensity to punish selfish behavior. In this study, scientists investigated a foraging society of Papua New Guinea and demonstrated that social image building promotes cooperative behavior more than punishment.

The researchers examined cooperation among the Teop, a small, tightly-knit society in Papua New Guinea. The group’s social structure is centered around a village elder called the ‘Big Man’ with informal authority to impose discipline on community members.  The Big Man is also seen as the guardian and center of the community’s social network. During the course of the study, a group of Teop worked together in a social economic game. The times the Big Man was watching were when social image building was greater and payoffs were maximized. Punishment was only important in the absence of the Big Man and resulted in lower payoffs.  Game players punished non-cooperators less when the Big Man was watching.

“It’s clear from our current national and political debates how fundamental the tension is between pursuing individual self-interest versus the greater good,” Tracer said.  “Our research demonstrates that while both reputation building and sanctioning can motivate people to take a larger view and be more cooperative with one another, reputation building is not only more psychologically-satisfying but is also the more efficient strategy – it results in higher tangible economic gains for everyone.”

These results show that concerns about social image promote cooperative behavior more than punishment of non-cooperators.  The researchers note that the advent of on-line rating systems and social media may extend its influence to large industrialized societies as well.