IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

The Puzzle of Prosociality


  • 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.

Suggested Citation

  • Herbert Gintis, 2001. "The Puzzle of Prosociality," Working Papers 01-10-059, Santa Fe Institute.
  • Handle: RePEc:wop:safiwp:01-10-059

    Download full text from publisher

    To our knowledge, this item is not available for download. To find whether it is available, there are three options:
    1. Check below whether another version of this item is available online.
    2. Check on the provider's web page whether it is in fact available.
    3. Perform a search for a similarly titled item that would be available.


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Azar, Ofer H., 2004. "What sustains social norms and how they evolve?: The case of tipping," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 54(1), pages 49-64, May.
    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. Daniela Nepote & Sylvie Occelli, 2003. "Beyond core-periphery relationship in the EC cooperation," ERSA conference papers ersa03p218, European Regional Science Association.
    4. Moingeon, Bertrand & Quélin, Bertrand & Dalsace, Frédéric & Lumineau, Fabrice, 2006. "Inter-organizational communities of practice: specificities and stakes," HEC Research Papers Series 857, HEC Paris.
    5. 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).

    More about this item


    Altruism; cultural evolution;

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:wop:safiwp:01-10-059. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Thomas Krichel). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    We have no references for this item. You can help adding them by using this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.