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The Puzzle of Prosociality


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  • Herbert Gintis


How is cooperation among large numbers of unrelated individuals sustained? Cooperation generally requires altruism, where individuals take actions that are group-beneficial but personally costly. Why do selfish agents not drive out altruistic behavior? This is the puzzle of prosociality. Altruism is supported by culture. Sociology treats culture as a set of norms that are transmitted by socialization institutions and internalized by individuals. Altruism, in this approach, is thus sustained by the internalization of norms. Biology treats culture as knowledge that is passed to children from parents (vertical transmission), from other prominent adults (oblique transmission), and from peers (horizontal transmission), such that individuals with higher payoffs have a higher level of biological fitness, leading norms to follow a dynamic of Darwinian selection. Altruism, in this approach, can be sustained only if group selection is feasible, which it rarely is. Economics uses evolutionary game theory to model culture as strategies deployed in social interaction that evolve according to a replicator dynamic, in which individuals shift from lower to higher payoff norms. In this approach, altruism cannot be sustained, but cooperation is possible with repeated interactions and a sufficiently low discount rate. This paper integrates these approaches and shows that altruism, as well as norms that reduce both individual and group payoffs, can be supported in a stable equilibrium.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Santa Fe Institute in its series Working Papers with number 01-10-059.

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Date of creation: Oct 2001
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:wop:safiwp:01-10-059

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Keywords: Altruism; cultural evolution;

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Cited by:
  1. Ofer H. Azar, 2003. "What sustains social norms and how they evolve? The case of tipping," Others 0309001, EconWPA.
  2. Bergh, Andreas & Engseld, Peter, 2005. "The Problem of Cooperation and Reputation Based Choice," Working Papers 2005:27, Lund University, Department of Economics, revised 04 May 2006.
  3. Friederike Mengel, 2006. "A Model Of Immigration, Integration And Cultural Transmission Of Social Norms," Working Papers. Serie AD 2006-08, Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Económicas, S.A. (Ivie).
  4. Moingeon, Bertrand & Quélin, Bertrand & Dalsace, Frédéric & Lumineau, Fabrice, 2006. "Inter-organizational communities of practice: specificities and stakes," Les Cahiers de Recherche 857, HEC Paris.
  5. Daniela Nepote & Sylvie Occelli, 2003. "Beyond core-periphery relationship in the EC cooperation," ERSA conference papers ersa03p218, European Regional Science Association.


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