Tag Archives: cooperation

New four-legged robots designed to work together to accomplish difficult tasks

Quantity is a quality all of its own, and that seems to be true in robotics, as well. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame report having successfully designed and built multi-legged robots that can navigate difficult terrain and work together to perform various tasks.

Image credits University of Notre Dame / Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin.

Nature is no stranger to the concept of cooperation. We ourselves are a great example of such cooperation at work, but insects such as ants and bees showcase what can be done when even tiny actors join hands. Roboticists have long been keen to mimic such abilities in their creations, and to instill them in small frames, especially.

New research places us squarely on the path towards such an objective.

Silicon swarm

“Legged robots can navigate challenging environments such as rough terrain and tight spaces, and the use of limbs offers effective body support, enables rapid maneuverability and facilitates obstacle crossing,” says Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame, who designed the robots.

“However, legged robots face unique mobility challenges in terrestrial environments, which results in reduced locomotor performance.”

The collective behavior of birds, ants, and other social insect species has been a great source of inspiration for Ozkan-Aydin. In particular, she was fascinated by their ability to work together to perform tasks that would be impossible for a single individual of the species to perform. She set out to try and instill the same capabilities in her own creations.

Although collective behaviors have been explored in flying and underwater robots, land-borne robots must contend with particular challenges that the other two do not. Traversing complex terrain, for example, is one such challenge.

Ozkan-Aydin started from the idea that a physical connection between individual bots could be used to enhance their overall mobility. The legged robots she designed will attempt to perform tasks such as moving a light object or navigating a smooth surface on their own but, if the task proves to be too great for them alone, several robots will physically connect to one another to form a larger, multi-legged system. Collectively, they will work to overcome the issue.

“When ants collect or transport objects, if one comes upon an obstacle, the group works collectively to overcome that obstacle. If there’s a gap in the path, for example, they will form a bridge so the other ants can travel across — and that is the inspiration for this study,” she said.

“Through robotics we’re able to gain a better understanding of the dynamics and collective behaviors of these biological systems and explore how we might be able to use this kind of technology in the future.”

Each individual bot measures around 15 to 20 centimeters (6 to 8 inches) in length, and they were built using a 3D printer. They carry their own lithium polymer battery, three sensors — a light sensor at the front and two magnetic touch sensors at the front and back, — and a microcontroller. The magnetic sensors allow them to connect to one another. They move around on four flexible legs, a setup that Ozkan-Aydin says reduces their need for sensors and their overall complexity.

She designed and built the robots in early 2020 and, due to the pandemic, much of her experimentation was performed at home or in her yard. During that time, the robots’ abilities were tested over grass, mulch, leaves, and acorns. Their abilities to cross flat surfaces were tested over particle board, stairs made from insulation foam, over a shaggy carpet, or over a particle board with rectangular wooden blocks glued on to simulate rough terrain.

During this time, Ozkan-Aydin programmed the robots so that when one of them became stuck, they would send a signal to the others to come to link up with it and help it traverse the obstacles together.

“You don’t need additional sensors to detect obstacles because the flexibility in the legs helps the robot to move right past them,” said Ozkan-Aydin. “They can test for gaps in a path, building a bridge with their bodies; move objects individually; or connect to move objects collectively in different types of environments, not dissimilar to ants.”

There are still improvements that can be made to the design, she explains. However, the intention wasn’t to design the perfect robot; what she hopes for is that her findings will help spur further development of low-cost, cooperative robots that can perform real-world tasks such as search-and-rescue operations, collective transport of various objects, environmental monitoring, or even space exploration. In the future, she will be focusing on improving the control, sensing abilities, and power autonomy of the robots.

“For functional swarm systems, the battery technology needs to be improved,” she said. “We need small batteries that can provide more power, ideally lasting more than 10 hours. Otherwise, using this type of system in the real world isn’t sustainable.”

“You need to think about how the robots would function in the real world, so you need to think about how much power is required, the size of the battery you use. Everything is limited so you need to make decisions with every part of the machine.”

The paper “Self-reconfigurable multilegged robot swarms collectively accomplish challenging terradynamic tasks” has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

The origin of empathy might lie in the need to simulate other people’s thoughts

Credit: Pixabay.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Scientists have sought to explain the origin of this defining human psychological ability in relation to cooperation. However, a new study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute and the Santa Fe Institute makes a convincing case that a broad range of empathetic response is rooted in cognitive simulations which aren’t necessarily geared towards cooperation with other individuals.

We need to read the minds of other people, so empathy was born

Previous efforts to understand the evolutionary origins and underlying mechanisms of empathy focused on coordination and cooperation among individuals. By being able to read the emotions and intentions of other individuals, we were better equipped to meet their needs and navigate complex social strata, or so the theory goes.

Fabrizio Mafessoni, who is a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has a different take on empathy. He and Michael Lachmann, a theoretical biologist at the Santa Fe Institute, propose that empathetic responses could have evolved in the absence of kin selection or other cooperative mechanisms. Examples of empathetic responses that we all use include emotional contagion, contagious yawning, and pathologies like echopraxia (compulsive repetition of others’ movements) and echolalia (compulsive repetition of others’ speech).

The researchers say that the minds of other people can be seen as ‘black boxes‘, in the sense that we cannot read their content. However, seeing how we all own the same type of black boxes, individuals “are constantly running simulations of what other minds might be doing.” This behavior isn’t necessarily geared towards cooperation — although empathy can definitely enhance cooperative behavior — but rather encompasses a broader set of outcomes. It’s just something that members of our species, as well as other animals, do spontaneously.

Biologically speaking, this process may be enabled by mirror neurons — neurons that fire not only when performing a motor action, but when we imagine or see other people performing the same actions a swell.

Mafessoni and Lachmann designed a new model that was mainly rooted in cognitive simulation, and then observed how virtual actors performed when engaged in as-actor simulations. A variety of the systems produced by the simulation can be explained in terms of cooperation and kin-selection. However, the model also produced scenarios where an actor occasionally coordinates with others even when the outcome is not advantageous. This seems to suggest that empathetic reactions and systems did not evolve solely for cooperation and kin-selection — they may also have evolved because animals need to more broadly envision the actions of others.

“We show that these mechanisms are advantageous in complex environments, by allowing an observer to use information about its own behavior to interpret that of others. However, without inhibition of the recruited neural circuits, the observer would perform the corresponding downstream action, rather than produce the appropriate social response. We identify evolutionary trade-offs that could hinder this inhibition, leading to emotional contagion as a by-product of mind-reading. The interaction of this model with kinship is complex,” the reserachers wrote.

According to Mafessoni, “the very origin of empathy may lie in the need to understand other individuals.”

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports

Florida Harvester Ant.

Desert ants’ complex behavior is actually built from very simple interactions

Ant colonies don’t organize per se, but they still pull off complex behavior in harsh environments without any glitches. New research looks into how the insects manage this, offering inspiration for future robotic systems.

Florida Harvester Ant.

Florida Harvester Ant (P. badius).
Image credits Judy Gallagher / Flickr.

Researchers from Princeton have created a new mathematical model to explain how desert harvester ants coordinate efforts to gather seeds. This seemingly-simple process actually needs to be very finely-tuned: in the desert, the colony needs to carefully weigh the water expenditure of foraging against the benefit of bringing in seeds (which serve as both food and water). The model could help future research analyze how ant colonies respond to environmental changes, the team writes, and how behavioral differences among colonies affect their long-term survival and reproductive success.

Anting it

“[The study] was this beautiful marriage of the opportunity not just to collect data, but to define experiments — to use our models and our perspective to try to understand the connection between what individuals are doing and what happens at the level of the group,” said Naomi Ehrich Leonard, Princeton’s Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the paper’s corresponding author.

The study was borne of Professor Leonard’s expertise — she has previously analyzed the dynamics of bird flocks and fish schools to understand how large groups can operate efficiently without central control — and that of Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon. Gordon and her team have spent the last three decades monitoring red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) at a field site in the New Mexico desert.

Leonard powered-up Gordon’s efforts with a computer model meant to describe how interactions between individual ants generate the complex and highly-tuned behavior seen on the colony-level. In turn, the research will help in the design of robot swarm teams for search and rescue missions or other tasks in environments we can’t reach.

All in all, the ants are an excellent example of how a group of individuals interacts and makes tradeoffs in uncertain conditions. In the dry deserts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, red harvester ants gather seeds for both food and water. However, unless they go about it properly, they risk losing more water than they recover from seeds — which would, eventually, lead to the colony dying of dehydration.

“The ants are able to regulate the rate at which they send out foragers with a very limited communication framework,” says Renato Pagliara Vasquez, the study’s lead author.

Vasquez explains that the ants communicate mainly via smell. When two ants tap their antennae together, “they can smell what are called cuticular hydrocarbons, and that smell changes when they’ve been outside the nest. One ant can also tell if the other is carrying a seed, and this information is enough to regulate the entire foraging behavior of the colony.”

The model Leonard developed crunches these interactions to estimate how likely each forager is to leave the nest in search of seeds. Put together, these estimates allow them to analyze how a colony’s foraging rates fluctuate in response to environmental conditions.

To gather data for the model, Gordon’s team used videos and computer-vision software, as well as manual counts, to record 13 colonies of ants. They monitored how many of the insects entered and exited the nests during the morning hours (before it got too hot for the ants to forage) and how these figures varied from colony to colony.

The team looked at foraging behavior as a “closed-loop system” in which the environment and ants that are already foraging outside influence interactions inside the colony. In turn, this affects foraging rates. Ants coming into the colony interact with those already there, influencing their likelihood of engaging in foraging. What they wanted to understand is how environmental conditions affect each ant’s sensitivity to these interactions — something they call “sensitivity level volatility”.

It’s actually very similar to how simple interactions between neurons form our thoughts and memories, the team writes.

“The ants don’t know what the current temperature or humidity is outside the nest, so they become informed the first time they leave the nest,” Vasquez explains. “So, we proposed [that once] they’ve been outside for the first time they change how sensitive they are to interactions with returning foragers. In essence, the colony can use the accumulated information from the incoming ants to regulate how sensitive the colony is to sending out new foragers.”

“This model puts together the interactions of ants inside the nest and the rate at which they forage outside into one system, so that we can understand the process that evolution is shaping,” said Gordon. “Natural selection is acting on how this all works dynamically, and now we have a way to describe that. It’s a very elegant way to think about a lot of noisy dynamics and put it together into a model that can be used to guide further work.”

The researchers plan to expand their research by looking at the behavior of single ants throughout the day. Gordon also plans to integrate the foraging model with genetic data on the ant colonies to explore whether foraging behavior that helps the ants conserve water is heritable, since it is known to affect a colony’s reproductive success.

The paper “Regulation of harvester ant foraging as a closed-loop excitable system” has been published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

thumbs up.

Seven traits are seen as moral by the whole world, study finds

New research from the University of Oxford reveals that people everywhere do, in fact, share a few moral rules — seven of them, to be exact.

thumbs up.

Image via Pixabay.

UK anthropologists say that helping your family, helping your group, returning favors, courage, deference to superiors, the fair division of resources, and respect for the property of others are things we all hold in esteem. The findings are based on a survey of 60 cultures around the world.

Universally liked

While previous research has looked into moral rules on the local level, this is the first to analyze them in a globally-representative sample of societies. It is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted, the authors write. All in all, the team analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethical behavior from 60 societies, comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources.

“The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers,” says Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology.

“People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”

One of the theories this study put to the test is that morality evolved to promote in-group cooperation. This theory proposes that, because there are many different ways a group can work together, there should be several behavioral patterns people see as moral or ethical.

The team looked at the seven patterns of morality I’ve mentioned earlier. These seven are expressions of four fundamental types of cooperation, the team explains: “the allocation of resources to kin; coordination to mutual advantage; social exchange; and conflict resolution.”

Kin selection makes us feel compelled to care for our family and steer clear of incestual relationships. Coordination for mutual advantage pushes us to form groups and value solidarity and loyalty. Social exchange hinges on our ability to trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. Finally, conflict resolution explains why we engage in costly displays such as courage and generosity, defer to our superiors, try to settle disputes fairly, and respect others’ property.

All these seven cooperative behaviors were universally considered morally good, the authors found. More importantly, the team found no society in which any of them were considered morally bad. Finally, the team writes that they were noted as being ethical across continents with more-or-less equal frequency — in other words, they were not exclusive to any one region.

Among the Amhara, “flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character,” the team writes, while Korea developed an “egalitarian community ethic [of] mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbors [and] strong in-group solidarity.” Garo society puts a large emphasis on reciprocity “in every stage of [life]” and it has “a very high place in the Garo social structure of values.” The Maasai people still hold “those who cling to the warrior virtues” in high respect, with the ideal of a warriorhood revolving around on “ascetic commitment to self-sacrifice […] in the heat of battle, as a supreme display of courageous loyalty.”

The Bemba hold a deep sense of respect for their elders and their authority, while the Kapauku ideal of justice is called “uta-uta, half-half”, the meaning of which comes very close to what we call equity. And among the Tarahumara, “respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations,” they also write.

While cultures and societies around the world held these seven elements to be basic moral rules, the team did find variations in how they were ranked. The team plans to gather data on modern moral values in the future, to see how differences in moral rankings today impacts cooperation under various social conditions.

“Our study was based on historical descriptions of cultures from around the world,” says co-author Professor Harvey Whitehouse. “This data was collected prior to, and independently of, the development of the theories that we were testing”

“Future work will be able to test more fine-grained predictions of the theory by gathering new data, even more systematically, out in the field.”

“We hope that this research helps to promote mutual understanding between people of different cultures; an appreciation of what we have in common, and how and why we differ,” Curry adds.

The paper, “Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies” has been published in the journal Current Anthropology.

bonobo

Bonobo food-sharing points to evolutionary origin of human generosity

bonobo

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Cooperation is the bedrock of human social behavior and arguably the main reason why our species has come to dominate this planet. It’s through forming very tight-knit communities and sharing — not just of resources but knowledge, too — that humans have managed to overcome their individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But where did this striking behavior originate? Evolutionary clues may lie in our closest relatives, the bonobos, which seem to be eager to share food with peers even when they could have easily kept it for themselves. Tool-sharing, however, is not part of their generosity repertoire.

What makes a generous ape?

Our species split from the lineage common to chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) roughly seven million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from a common ancestor which they had shared two million years ago.

To the untrained eye, bonobos and chimps are hard to tell apart. However, the two differ in morphology, behavior, and perhaps even emotions and cognition in important ways.

Bonobos live in female-dominant social groups where the females form tight bonds against males through same-sex socio-sexual contact, an approach that some scientists believe is what limits aggression. Sex plays a vital role in bonobo society — the animals do not form permanent partnerships and making love is used both as a greeting and to resolve conflicts. The typical bonobo has red lips, neat little ears, and a distinctive hairdo. In the wild, they have not been seen to cooperatively hunt, use tools, and aggression is quite uncommon (the completely peaceful, hippie bonobo is a myth).

Chimps live in male-dominant groups, where intense — sometimes lethal — aggression is common. Chimps are so aggressive and competitive that they will even eat the infants of other chimpanzee groups. Unlike bonobos, chimps hunt in groups and use tools. Studies have shown that chimps also exhibit some features of generosity. In one experiment, chimps handed over a tool that was out of reach to another chimp and who was clearly requiring it.

But what about bonobos?

Christopher Krupenye, a primate behavior researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, repeated the experiment with bonobos that live in the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two individuals were placed in cages side by side with a narrow window in between. One individual had several palm nuts while the other individual had several rocks at his disposal — that are perfect for cracking palm nuts.

The bonobos showed very little intent in sharing the rocks but consistently shared the nuts (18% of the trials) even though they could have kept them for themselves with no repercussions. Because there was no pressure to share their nuts, the bonobos seem to have behaved this way out of generosity.

In the wild, chimps also sometimes share food, but only on certain occasions such as following a big hunt or to placate pestering beggars.

In most species, food sharing happens between parent and infant. But, when it comes to food, the findings show that bonobos are uniquely prosocial among non-human primates.

It’s not clear why the bonobos wouldn’t share tools. What’s truly striking is that the behavior is almost completely opposite of chimps, who would share tools but not food.

Perhaps the separate evolutionary paths that bonobos and chimps each took may have shaped their unique takes on generosity. Alternatively, since bonobos don’t really use tools, they may fail to grasp the tool’s utility to the other person. Bonobos, who live in forests where food is abundant, have never been observed to crack nuts with a rock or fish termites with a stick as chimps often do. 

But although their generosity isn’t fully rounded, the study suggests that bonobos share many traits with humans in this respect. Over millions of years, our lineage may have encouraged more sharing, leading to more versatile generosity. For instance, human children as young as five understand that generosity scores them social points among their group and are remarkably willing to do so (although some parents reading this article may beg to differ).

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Superb_fairy_wren.

Australian wrens recognize friends from other species and work together with them

Birds of different feathers also flock together, a team of US researchers reveals. They showed that two species of Australian fairy-wrens can recognize individuals from other species and form long-lasting partnerships with them.

Superb_fairy_wren.

A Superb Fairy-Wren male.
Image credits benjamint444 / Wikimedia.

Birds, as a group, are pretty big on cooperation. Some build their nests close to those of larger, more aggressive species in an effort to discourage predators. Alternatively, members of several species will form flocks — either to forage or for defense — in alliances that can last for years. However, these interactions aren’t cemented by individuals — they take place between species, and any bird from these will do.

A new study, published by scientists from the University of Chicago and the University of Nebraska, shows that two bird species can, in fact, form partnerships based on the individuals in question. Members of the two different species of Australian fairy-wrens (family Maluridae) will recognize specific individuals from the other species and form long-term partnerships to forage and defend the group’s land.

Wingmen

“Finding that these two species associate was not surprising, as mixed species flocks of birds are observed all over the world,” said Allison Johnson, PhD, and the paper first author.

“But when we realized they were sharing territories with specific individuals and responding aggressively only to unknown individuals, we knew this was really unique. It completely changed our research and we knew we had to investigate it.”

Variegated fairy-wrens (M. lamberti) and splendid fairy-wrens (M. cyaneus) are native to Australia. Both species feed on insects, live in large family groups and have their mating season at the same time of year. The birds don’t migrate, living all their life in eucalyptus scrublands.

Their territories often overlap but, instead of bickering, these bright-blue birds cooperate — birdwatchers often see them traveling and foraging together. Individuals from both species will also work together to protect their territory from outsiders, be they variegated or splendid fairy-wrens. Curious to know how the birds distinguish friend from foe, the team studied these species at the Brookfield Conservation Park, South Australia, from 2012 to 2015.

Variegated Fairy-Wren.

A Variegated Fairy-Wren male.
Image credits James Niland / Flickr.

One of the first hypotheses they checked was whether — like other species of songbirds — the fairy-wrens recognized familiar individuals based on their unique song patterns. And, surprisingly, when the team played a recording of either species, the other would respond, flying to investigate what the ruckus was all about. Building on this observation, the team then stalked both species just before dawn and captured clear recordings of their specific songs. Afterward, they played these recordings from a speaker in another group’s territory — meant to simulate an intrusion. The objective was to see how territory owners reacted to the songs of familiar and unfamiliar members of the other species.

The speaker was placed roughly 30 meters away from a subject fairy-wren. The team played four different recordings: a fairy-wren that occupied the same territory (a co-resident or “friendly” bird), a fairy-wren from an adjacent territory (a neighbor), a fairy-wren from an area five or more territories away (an unknown bird), and a red-capped robin, a common species that doesn’t pose a threat to the fairy-wrens (as a control group).

According to the team, both species could easily recognize their friends’ songs despite being different species. The songs of neighbors or unknown members of the different species elicited a strong response from socially-dominant males — more aggressive than the ones elicited by birds sharing the territory, such as the red-capped robins. However, the songs of friendly birds didn’t elicit any kind of response, suggesting they weren’t considered threats.

“Splendid and variegated fairy-wrens are so similar in their habitat preferences and behavior, we would expect them to act as competitors. Instead, we’ve found stable, positive relationships between individuals of the two species,” said Christina Masco, PhD and paper co-author.

The team believes that these interspecies partnerships allow the fairy-wrens to better defend their nests and territories from threats — think of it like a birds-down-under NATO. Another potential benefit the team identified is that variegated fairy-wrens spent more time foraging, were less vigilant, and had more success raising their young when collaborating with the splendid fairy-wrens. However, the latter didn’t show any change in behavior when associating with the other species.

The paper “Song recognition and heterospecific associations between 2 fairy-wren species (Maluridae)” has been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Brown rat.

Rats trade with each other and are surprisingly fair, research finds

Trade and cooperation aren’t as exclusively human as we like to believe. A new study reveals that Norway rats trade different services and commodities following a strict equity principle, even when different ‘currencies’ are employed.

Brown rat.

Researchers at the University of Bern are the first to report that certain non-human animals will naturally exchange different goods and services. Trade is widely considered a cornerstone human competence which helped us create complex societies. Finding similar behaviors in other species (in this case Norway rats, Rattus norvegicus, one of the most common species of rat also known as the brown rat) could help us understand the evolutionary path of cooperation in humans — and also show us that, in the end, we’re not that different from other life on Earth.

These here onions for your plow

Humans have their ‘cooperation’ dial set on overdrive. We cooperate with our peers virtually every single day and on multiple levels. It can be something as innocuous as holding the door open for someone or giving directions all the way to extremely complicated tasks — such as managing global markets, putting together a space shuttle, or trying to fight global warming.

It’s this pervasive pattern of cooperation which made our societies what they are today. Cooperation in our species generally follows the “I help you because you helped me” (reciprocal) strategy. This is believed to be a very cognitive demanding process, especially when different commodities are exchanged.

Despite that, it seems to be a winning strategy in the long term. It forms the cornerstone of our communities, enabling systems such as the division of labor, which in turn propelled our ecological and economic success.

Although high-level cooperation so far seems to be ours alone, cooperation by-and-large is far from being uniquely human. Bees work together to manage the hive, ants maintain surprisingly complicated colonies, for example. However, it has been argued that the demands reciprocal cooperation strategies preclude non-human species from partaking in the fun. Despite this, some research has found evidence of commodity exchange and reciprocal cooperation in the wild, raising the possibility that other species could be trading under our noses.

The rat race

Manon Schweinfurth and Michael Taborsky, two researchers from the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the University of Bern carried out an experimental study to see whether common Norway rats will engage in reciprocal trading of two different forms of help (services), allogrooming and food provisioning.

They worked with 37 wild-type rat couples, running them through four different situations, each consisting of an experience and a test phase. During the first stage of the experiment, the rats experienced their partner as cooperating or non-cooperating in one commodity. Allogrooming was induced by applying a saline solution to the back of the rat’s neck, which is difficult to impossible to access while self-grooming and requires help from a partner. To induce food provisioning, partner rats could pull trays with food items towards the test rats.

During the following test phase, rats could return the service to the same partners, but they were only supplied with the opposite commodity of the one used in the experience phase — donating food after being groomed or vice-versa. The team then observed how long it took for the rats to help in the first stage, and how often it was returned in kind during the second stage. The researchers note that allogrooming is a naturally occurring behavior where no training was involved. In contrast, rats had been taught at a young age how to donate food to a social partner by the tray within its reach.

The team reports that rats groomed cooperating pairs more often than non-cooperating ones, and were more likely to donate food to partners that had heavily groomed them compared to ones that had not. In effect, the trading patterns between the two animals respected the rule of direct reciprocity, the “tit for tat” principle of equity, even when they needed to use a different currency to repay.

“This result indicates that reciprocal trading among non-human animals may be much more widespread than currently assumed. It is not limited to large-brained species with advanced cognitive abilities,” says Manon Schweinfurth.

So does this mean we should be worried about illegal cheese markets going on in back alleys at night? Probably not. But it is exciting to see hints of human-like cooperation patterns in other species. It would be interesting to see if animals can maintain this tit for tat mentality when ‘trading’ with other species as well — if that’s the case, I have a lot of grooming to cash in from my cat.

The paper “Reciprocal Trading of Different Commodities in Norway Rats” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Mouse.

Mice will pick social rules over might-makes-right, hinting at the birth of human societies and laws

Living in a group can be a hard thing to navigate, especially as an individual’s short-term interest can conflict strongly with the group’s long-term interests. A new paper looks into how mice juggle costs and benefits in social settings, with implications for other animals and humans as well.

Mouse.

Image via Pixabay.

People have learned to live together in huge communities, and a big part of that is solving conflicts through compromise and by following rules, instead of making justice with one’s fists. The sheer scale and complexity of the frameworks of rules we use to guide these resolutions, as well as our heavy reliance on cooperation, sets us apart from other animals.

Still, this also raises a question. How did this web of rules and cooperation evolve, and can other animals set up new social rules to help guide their interaction? A new study from the Center for Cognition and Sociality, part of the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), shows that lab mice can establish and then follow rules that are equitable (provide equal rewards in the long-term) even if they have to exercise patience and tolerance in the short-term. The findings provide a glimpse into how humans and other animals weigh costs and benefits in social interactions.

I don’t make the rules I just work here

Competition can be a powerful tool to getting what you want and need. But it’s also a very risky, one-against-all strategy, which comes with great costs both of time and of energy. With that in mind, humans generally adopt rules to guide how people with conflicting interests solve their differences without having to resort to aggression. The ‘first-come, first-served’ approach, or territorial ownership, are examples of such rules that, in the long-term, maximize the mutual benefit of everybody involved.

Other species also follow such rules. Some species of social spiders, the team notes, will back away when trespassing on someone else’s territory and will look for an unoccupied place. Rodents, however, are known to be impulse-driven, especially when food is concerned. A mouse would rather eat a small amount of food now than wait for a large serving later. Chow, after all, is a matter of survival.

However, the IBS researchers were curious to see how well-fed mice would behave when presented with a less immediate and necessary reward — could they learn to adapt to new social rules to maximize the rewards for all involved?

In lieu of food, the team used headsets that could produce a wireless electrical brain stimulation (WBS) in the medial forebrain bundle, the brain’s reward circuitry. The mice would feel this as a very powerful (yet nonaddictive) sense of pleasure, which they tend to prefer even over mating, as previous work revealed.

The mice were then trained using a specially designed box. It had a starting area in the center, and two reward zones to its left and right. The animals learned to start the round by entering the central area, and then follow a blue light indicating one of the reward zones. The light was randomly allocated and indicated where a mouse had to go to receive a five-second WBS pleasure-burst.

For the experiment, the team first placed two trained mice in the same box, setting them up for a winner-takes-all scenario. The mice had to further learn that the round only started when both entered the start zone together. Moreover, they had to figure out that only the first mouse to enter would receive the WBS — as soon as the second one entered the same zone, the signal was interrupted.

Cooperation rules

Over time, the researchers report, mice developed a “social rule” through which to split up the box. One mouse would only go for the pleasure doses on the left zone, while the other would only go for those on the right. Out of the 38 mice tested in this step, 23 (60%) observed the rule and waited for their turn. Those that respected the rule went through more rounds during the experiment than their peers, thus receiving more reward time overall. In other words, despite the initial effort of obeying the rules, teams of cooperating mice got more reward for each member than those who didn’t work together.

“Violating the rule is not a problem in the short term, but it is not sustainable in the long-term,” says Professor Shin Hee-Sup, corresponding author of the study. “Mice that respect the social rule learn how to play to their mutual advantage.”

However, he admits that the mice were still tempted to cheat the system and get some extra reward out of the situation. “From time to time,” even the most cooperating mice would, after waiting for a few seconds so as not to disrupt the other mouse’s WBS hit, “try their luck by going to the opponent’s territory,” Hee-Sup explains. Here is where another rule underpinning social cooperation comes into play.

“Another rule is tolerance. If a mouse violates the rule, the other mouse has the choice of retaliate immediately, or tolerate and keep on observing the rule. Tit for tat brings a disruption of the system, while tolerance to partner’s mistakes allows the system to continue, and as a result both mice receive a long-term benefit,” explains the professor. “This is called Bourgeois strategy in psychology. It limits aggression and is better for the long-term.”

Overall, rule observance increased over time during the test. This happened independently of the mice’s body weight or learning ability. To prevent habit (such as a mouse forming a preference for one side of the box) from biasing the results, the authors also swapped members between the teams to couple rats that had previously gone on the same side. Disoriented and confused at first, the animals quickly re-assigned territory, one going to the left and one to the right. This phenomenon is known as “rapid rule transfer,” and shows that mice are capable of adapting the same social rule to new situations.

In the future, the authors want to see if familiarity between the mice influences their tendency to observe the rules. Another interesting avenue of research would be to see if the mice keep following the rules in unfair conditions — i.e. when they’re trained to expect that the zones receive an equal amount of reward but that doesn’t happen.

The paper “Mice in social conflict show rule-observance behavior enhancing long-term benefit” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Wolves are better team players than dogs, study reveals, casting doubt on our view of domestication

Wolves might actually be friendlier and more forthcoming that dogs when cooperation is concerned, new research suggests. The findings go against the grain of popular wisdom that casts ‘man’s best friend’ as more of a team player than the wolf.

Wolves.

Image credits Andrea Bohl.

Wolves — they eat grandmothers and ambush unsuspecting kids traveling through the forest. At least, they do so in fairy tales. But that image is a good representative of what people generally hold to be true about wolves: these are dangerous, highly intelligent, highly capable hunters and ultimately, profoundly wild creatures. Our view of the dogs, however, is the polar opposite. They’re fluffy, playful members of the family, so perfectly adapted to civilized life and so socially graceful that they won the monicker “man’s best friends.”

Not so fast

It’s also not true, according to a research team led by Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, a senior postdoc researcher at the Wolf Science and Clever dog Lab. Although previous research often suggests that domestication has imparted a more tolerant temperament to dogs compared to their wolf ancestors, a paper Dr Sarah’s team recently published casts doubt on this idea.

“We still have very much this idea of the big, bad wolf and the cuddly pooch on your sofa,” Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who led the research, told BBC News.

“But, I think the simplest message is that the story is not quite as clear as that.”

Wolves are very social animals. They base their packs on close familial ties and work together to raise pups or hunt. Modern dogs are also considered to be social animals. However, they don’t exhibit cooperation behaviors such as those listed above. Considering the belief that domestication made them friendlier and more tolerant of humans and other dogs, that shouldn’t be the case.

To find out what’s up, the team ran a classic behavior experiment and tested both species at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, where wolves and dogs are raised together in the same environment ever since puppyhood. Known as the rope-pulling test, it’s basically a set-up that requires two animals to pull on a rope and get access to some food. The trick is that the testees have to work together — if they don’t both simultaneously pull on the rope, they don’t get any reward.

The center houses about 15 mongrel dogs and seven small packs of timber wolves, with two to three wolves in each pack. Dogs managed to successfully complete the test 2 times out of a total of 416 attempts, while wolves succeeded 100 times in 416 attempts — which, according to Dr Marshall-Pescini, puts their performance on par with that of chimpanzees. It’s probably glaringly evident, but the dogs almost never worked together, only collaborating 0.48% of the time. The team’s working hypothesis is that the dogs were reluctant to work together on the rope task because they wished to avoid potential conflicts — both wolves and dogs were curious about the food trays, the team reports, but dogs approached the food one at a time while wolves rarely waited their turn.

“Wolves will argue over food but also feed at the same time, [but] dogs simply avoid the potential [of] conflict,” Marshall-Pescini explains.

Too domesticated?

Dog snout.

Image credits Wow Phochiangrak.

The findings suggest that wolves’ wild streak makes them less averse to conflict, and they instead sort things out while working together. It goes against the traditional view of domestication, which holds that the process fosters more cooperative species. It’s easy to see why. Our perception of dogs as more cooperative than wolves likely comes down to the fact that dogs can be easily trained to work (as herd dogs, in hunts, or to rescue trapped survivors) or play with us.

However, it’s much harder to get dogs to cooperate with fellow dogs once you take people out of the picture. The team notes that this is especially true of village dogs, free-ranging animals with no owners or training which make up about 80% of all dogs on the planet. They will gather in loose packs and subsist mostly on scavaging garbage bins for scraps.

Very little research has been devoted to understanding these mooches, but work such as this might change that. The team’s next step will be to test how rearing or breeding changes how dogs cooperate with other dogs. Marshall-Pescini also wants to design a test that requires sequential cooperation, so the dogs’ tendency to avoid going after food at the same time can be taken out of the equation.

The paper “Importance of a species’ socioecology: Wolves outperform dogs in a conspecific cooperation task” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Biolfilms.

Bacterial communities take turns to eat when food becomes scarce

When food gets scarce, cooperating so everyone gets his or her fill is a sensible way to go about business. Bacteria seem to have caught on to this fact a lot earlier than we did, and developed time-sharing.

Biolfilms.

The biofilms grown by the team. Cyan color represents electrical activity.
Image credits University of California San Diego.

A team of researchers from the University of California San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences and Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain have found that competing communities of bacteria will enter a timesharing agreement when faced with limited sources of food. Under this strategy, the cultures will alternate feeding times to maximize efficiency and make sure everyone gets enough to eat.

“What’s interesting here is that you have these simple, single-celled bacteria that are tiny and seem to be lonely creatures, but in a community, they start to exhibit very dynamic and complex behaviors you would attribute to more sophisticated organisms or a social network,” said Gürol Süel, associate director of the San Diego Center for Systems Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute — Simons Faculty Scholar at UC San Diego.

“It’s the same timesharing concept used in computer science, vacation homes and a lot of social applications.”

Only that the bacteria seem to be enjoying their time-sharing plan.

Better living through electricity

Back in 2015, Süel and his team found that organized cultures of bacteria (biofilms) pump out electrical signals to communicate with and recruit neighboring bacteria into their little society. Building on that research, they wanted to find out if and how biofilms interact together using these signals. Through laboratory observation and mathematical modeling, they found that these communities will use them to ‘talk’ and cooperate by synchronizing their behavior.

To test their conclusions, they placed two Bacillus subtilis biofilms on the same culture with limited available food. The team writes that the two biofilms became “coupled through electrical signaling,” purposefully synchronizing their growth patterns from in-phase to anti-phase oscillations. In other words, instead of both biofilms going to eat in the morning and sleeping at night, they would take turns so each would have full access to the resource part of the time.

It’s a pretty elegant solution to a reduced nutrient supply. Instead of entering a costly competition, the two cultures simply decided not to step on each other’s toes and time-shared the available food — a strategy we also employ to maximize output in systems with limited resources.

“It is common for living systems to operate in unison, but here we’re showing that working out-of-sync can also provide a biological benefit,” said Jordi Garcia-Ojalvo, professor of systems biology at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and co-author of the study.

It’s interesting to think that these single-celled bacteria could develop the same economic strategy we did, without the benefits of say, brains. Now they just need to develop a health care plan and they’re all set to take over the world.

The paper “Coupling between distant biofilms and emergence of nutrient time-sharing” was published in the journal Science.

Unlikely cooperation: Coyote and badger spotted hunting together

Recent sightings in the area of the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center have revealed an unusual partnership: that between a badger and a coyote, successfully hunting together.

Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Kimberly Fraser, USFWS

Inter-species collaboration is uncommon in the animal world, and even when it does show up, it’s usually between prey animals, not predators. But this is not the first time a badger and a coyote have been observed working together. The two complement each other very well, with the coyote chasing down the prey if it runs away, and the badger digging after it if it goes into a hole.

When they try to hunt alone, they can be either outran or out-burrowed, but together, they are faster and more efficient than any prey. However, these partnerships are rare in colder months. Usually, they happen only during the summer, because in the winter the badger simply digs and finds hibernating animals — it has no need for the fast coyote. In fact, this is quite an open relationship between them, because the two have also been spotted hunting individually sometimes.

Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Kimberly Fraser, USFWS

A study published in 1992 also concluded that not only is the tandem more efficient when working together, but it also spends less energy and doesn’t have to move as much in the search of prey.

“Complementary morphological adaptations and predatory strategies, interspecific tolerance, and behavioral flexibility allowed them to form temporary hunting associations,” the study writes.

Well, each animal is a remarkable predator in its own right, but together — they’re almost unstoppable.

Mother chimp with her infant. M. Fröhlich

Chimps and Bonobos use sounds and gestures back-and-forth, mimicking human conversation

A conversation is a two-way street where cooperation is paramount. When cooperation between two or more people ends, like in the heat of an argument when shouting ensues, the conversation is officially over too. But although humans are the only Earthlings gifted with the power of speech, researchers found at least two other species, namely bonobos and chimpanzees, make use of conversational cooperation.

Mother chimp with her infant. M. Fröhlich

Mother chimp with her infant. Credit: M. Fröhlich

The team made of researchers from Max Planck‘s Institute for Ornithology and Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology monitored the communicative gestures of mother-infant pairs in four communities: two of chimpanzee and two of bonobos. They chose to follow mother-infant interactions because these are somewhat analogous to human mother-baby ones, in the sense that these are limited to unarticulated sounds and gestures.

After two years of closely following the bonobos and chimps from the Salonga National Park and Luo Scientific Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo, researchers came to the conclusion that communicative exchanges in both species resemble cooperative turn-taking sequences in human conversation. In other words, the mothers and infants recognized the pair was engaged in a conversation, and each took turns to signal their thoughts or listen.

There were some slight, but important differences in the way the two species converse, too. Marlen Froehlich, one of the lead authors of the study published in Scientific Reports, said, “(for bonobos) gaze plays a more important role and they seem to anticipate signals before they have been fully articulated.” Chimps, on the other hand, take their time and seem to use more complex cooperative elements like signaling, pausing and responding.

“By taking into consideration intra- and inter-species variability and by focusing on the mother-infant dyad, our results showed that all observed dyads across groups frequently engaged in turn-taking sequences to negotiate joint travel. They established participation frameworks via gaze, body orientation and the adjustment of initiation distance, and they used adjacency pair-like sequences characterized by gesture-response pairs and response waiting. Regarding temporal relationships between signals and responses, we found that mother-infant dyads of both species used the whole spectrum of responses, including immediate, overlapping and even delayed responses. Immediate responses match the temporal relations between turns in human speech consisting of relatively little cultural variation (e.g. overall cross-linguistic median of 100 ms, ranging from 0 ms in the English and Japanese culture, for instance, to 300 ms in the Danish and Lao culture),” the authores wrote in the study.

Following the way great apes cooperate, interact and converse in their highly complex societies might one day unravel the origin of human speech, a subject of great interest but also debate among scholars. Many agree, however, that the first precursors of speech were gestures. As such, bonobos might be the most representative animal model for understanding the very elemental prerequisites for human speech.

“Communicative interactions of great apes thus show the hallmarks of human social action during conversation and suggest that cooperative communication arose as a way of coordinating collaborative activities more efficiently,” says Simone Pika, head of the study.

 

 

theresa-sean-penn-zmescience

How motivation influences cooperation: would you open the ‘envelope’?

theresa-sean-penn-zmescience

Mother Teresa and her helpers built homes for orphans, nursing homes for lepers and hospices for the terminally ill in Calcutta. She is seen as the embodiment of genuine altruism.

Here’s a question: what’s the difference between actor Sean Penn and the charitable Mother Theresa? Bear with me for a second. Here’s a bit of context: following the onslaught left by Hurricane Katrina, Penn hurried to New Orleans to aid victims. Allegedly has has personally saved 40 people. Today, however, he’s scorned and mocked of because he also brought a camera crew and publicist along for the ride to document his humanitarian effort. Both Mother Theresa and Sean Penn have engaged in what can be described as humanitarian aid, yet one’s seen as a saint, while the other is made fun of. The key difference is motivation and now game theory may finally be able to account for it.

A true altruist doesn’t open the envelope

Mathematicians at Harvard’s  Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED) believe they have solved a long lasting problem:  how do you formulate a game theory where the motive makes a difference? To address this obvious issue that fails to reflect reality, researchers devised an elegant solution and added a new wrinkle to classic cooperation game. The new model called the “envelope” might not only help us understand how cooperation evolved, but also why people care about other people’s motives during interactions.

“What’s new about this game is that rather than simply deciding whether to cooperate or defect, you now have a new choice, which is whether to open this envelope,” Moshe Hoffman, a research scientist at PED said. “Inside the envelope, it tells you the cost of cooperation. It’s either high or low. Basically, the envelope is a metaphor for considering the cost of cooperation before making a decision, and someone who’s very principled about cooperation, or a genuine altruist, they would never open the envelope.”

The envelope is basically a life cheat, which offers the player valuable information which he can then use to decide whether or not to continue cooperating. The second player also can then decide whether to repeat the interaction, with a new envelope, or end the relationship.

“What’s innovative about this model is we’re able to capture this notion that people care whether or not you’re principled,” Hoffman said. “What we see in real life is that people only choose to continue a relationship with those who don’t open the envelope, because someone who is a genuine altruist … they just cooperate without looking.” Where prior models were predicated solely on whether the players chose to cooperate or defect, this model, Hoffman said, introduced this additional factor, “and what that represents is whether or not you’re thinking about the cost of cooperation.”

The New Orleans rescue mission ultimately became fodder for criticism because Penn was believed to have ulterior motives, which were not entirely altruistic to say the least. Most people can tell you this, but models couldn’t – now they can. So, basically  bringing a camera crew to document your rescue efforts in New Orleans is the real-world equivalent of looking in the envelope. The public sees Penn has having made a less costly decision having opened the envelope, so he can’t be trusted as a stable cooperator.

“Previous models of cooperation would predict that people would cooperate with [Sean Penn] because he’s doing good,” Hoffman said. “Those models had a hard time capturing the fact that while [someone] … cooperated, it’s kind of a dirty form of cooperating. This new model allows us to differentiate because even though he’s cooperating, he’s someone who cooperates while opening the envelope.”

But that’s not to say that this is an inherently bad form of cooperation – it’s just different.

“Because this model is the first of its kind, and it feels so different from all the other models, it took us some time to analyze it. And what we found is that there will be some situations in which you would only cooperate with a person if they don’t open the envelope. There may be other strategies — such as a business relationship — where you can continue to cooperate regardless of whether the other person looks. What we wanted to analyze is which equilibrium is chosen by evolution and under what circumstances.”

Understanding how motives affects cooperation is important on many levels. For one, business managers or politicians have a lot to learn from the envelope model. For instance, a classic cooperation model would see a politician changing positions based on polls as merely responding to his or her constituents, and not as a “flip-flopper”. Obviously, people condone this sort of behavior in real life because it makes the politician unreliable, and the envelope model takes this into account.

Scholars in philosophy and theology have tried to explain altruism through conventional means for hundreds of years. This sort of model signals a different kind of exercise, one that is less based on speculation and more on facts. This why, we might reach a point where the origin of altruism and its evolution might be objectively traced.

“I don’t think this is the best model for capturing everything about cooperation,” Hoffman said. “If what you want to understand is why people reciprocate, or why people do good in the first place, the models of reciprocal altruism are very, very insightful. But this is the only model that can capture why we care about the motives of others, or why people want to be principled.”

 

 

Common knowledge makes people more cooperative

Common knowledge impacts how likely we are to collaborate with one another. Image via Wiki Commons.

It seems quite intuitive, but scientists have officially proved it – sharing common knowledge with someone makes you more likely to cooperate with him. This provides valuable insight into how altruism works, and how groups can cooperate towards a common goal.

There have been plenty of studies into altruism, but fewer have studied its lesser known “cousin” – mutual cooperation; that is, when people cooperate to help others, and themselves. To analyze this phenomenon, a group of researchers, including authors Steve Pinker (known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind) designed four games, which involved 1,033 people. The games involved giving subjects various pieces of information, from private to common. The common information was literally broadcasted over a loudspeaker. Each person was then asked to make a set of decisions, each with varying costs and rewards, choosing to work alone or with other volunteers.

Image via GreenBiz.

What researchers observed was that  when people have common knowledge, and they know that they have this common knowledge, are much more likely to cooperate with one another. Especially if the information they have is private (like if they know a secret):

“Because it may be costly to engage in a coordinated activity when no one else does so, attempts to coordinate can be risky when it is unclear what other people will do,” the paper explains. “If one protester shows up he gets shot, but if a million show up they may send the dictator packing.”

Indeed, this finding has many ramifications, from understanding how social media can affect users, to more deep social action and interaction. The implications vary greatly, from the big and extraordinary, to the small and ordinary; for example, this behavior can overthrow dictators, but is also responsible for something as mundane as blushing:

“The acute discomfort in blushing,” the study suggests, “resides largely in the knowledge that the blusher knows he or she is blushing, knows that an onlooker knows it, that the onlooker knows that the blusher knows that the onlooker knows, and so on.”

Another researcher from the team, Kyle Thomas, emphasizes the importance of this finding:

“Common knowledge provides a unifying framework to understand a whole lot of otherwise odd and seemingly disconnected phenomena in human social life.” According to Thomas, people often either try to create common knowledge for a specific aim, like “using Twitter to incite protests in Egypt,” or to avoid it, as when a family doesn’t discuss “‘the elephant in the room’ like the problematic drunk uncle that no one wants to confront.”

It’s not yet clear why this type of behavior occurs, but it likely has evolutionary roots. The researchers haven’t directly tackled the cause, but they theorize in the paper:

“Human cognition may have been shaped by natural selection to solve coordination problems. If game theorists are correct that common knowledge is needed for coordination, then humans might have cognitive mechanisms for recognizing it.”

Journal Reference:  Kyle A.; DeScioli, Peter; Haque, Omar Sultan; Pinker, Steven. The Psychology of Coordination and Common KnowledgeJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, Aug 11 , 2014, No Pagination Specified.

Good vs Evil

Humans are wired to be good in nature – cooperation outweighs selfishness

There’s an age long question that even some of history’s greatest free thinkers, philosophers and theologists haven’t been able to answer – are humans good in nature? Many have tried to seek answers to this riddling puzzle, and for many the conclusion was a gloomy one – that man is simply doomed to stray the world in selfish agony or that only divine intervention itself can redeem the inherent wickedness of mankind. Can this question be answered by science, though?

A group of scientists from Harvard and Yale – David Rand, a developmental psychologist with a background in evolutionary game theory, Joshua Greene, a moral philosopher and psychologist, and Martin Novak, a biologists and mathematician – tackled this delicate hypothesis by defining key assumptions and correlating a slew of studies which encompassed thousands of participants. First off, where does good and bad nature separate? The researchers simplified it by asserting the following statement – the first impulse to act selfishly or cooperatively serves as an indicator for one’s inherent moral nature.

Intuition as an indicator of moral nature

Good vs EvilTheir research focuses on two critical decision making phases, that based on intuition and reflection. Decision based on intuition are taken unconsciously, in an automatic manner before your psyche has time to react. Reflection on the other hand leads to decisions guided by a conscious train of thought as the psyche identifies tackling angles, weighs in benefits and disadvantages and produces a rational outcome. Armed with these key assumptions, it all boils down to whether we act selfishly or altruistic under first instinct.

The scientists performed a series of experiments which sought to determine a link between processing speed and the two scales of value – selfishness and cooperation. These consisted of testing two famous paradigms – the prisoner’s dilemma and a public good’s game – in which 834 participants gathered from both participating undergrad students and nationwide samples, along with correlating 5 other studies. Both paradigms consist of a financial risk game in which players can opt to be selfish and gain more at the detriment of the group, or opposite, decide to act for the better of the group, while losing individually. When testing reaction times, the results were quite interesting to say the least. It was found that decisions taken faster or intuitively were associated with higher levels of cooperation, whereas slower decisions were grouped with higher levels of selfishness.

The researchers made a set of two new experiments, still not fully convinced that their previous findings are accurate. So they gathered 343 participants from a nationwide sample play a public goods game after they had been primed to use either intuitive or reflective reasoning. For the second study,  891 participants (211 undergraduates and 680 participants from a nationwide sample) were instructed to play a public goods game either in two modes, with no ground in between – either fast, which entailed making a decision under 10 seconds, or slow, meaning at least 10 seconds after the game had started. The findings for both of these final studies were very much similar and described what the researchers had been presuming all along – whether people were forced to use intuition (by acting under time constraints) or simply encouraged to do so (through priming), they gave significantly more money to the common good than did participants who relied on reflection to make their choices.

Alright, so that’s  7 studies and over 2,000 study participants point to the fact that humans are generally well intended. Helping our peers seems to be our first instinct, an evolutionary gimmick that help our race both survive and evolve perhaps. Either way, it’s not too hard, at first glance, to claim humans are wicked at heart. Maybe there’s indeed an altruism gene encoded in our DNA.After all, the human race has done so many terrible things through out its tiny history worth only a blink of an eye in the planet’s eon time. But, maybe those are just the doings of our leaders, and at our very core, each of us, with small exceptions, we’re all kind at heart.  At least that’s what science tells us.

Findings were published in the journal Nature.

What’s your take? Share an opinion in the comment section below this post. 

via Scientific American / image source

Humans are naturally inclined towards generosity – faster, spontaneous decisions are generous, well thought ones are selfish

Cooperation is central to human social behavior. Back in the early, dawning days of humanity, we were inferior from nearly every point of view, and cooperation was mainly what brought us to the dominating species status we have today.

But choosing to cooperate with others, while always benefic for the group, often requires individuals to give up a small percent of their own, personal incentive. Rand DG, Greene JD, Nowak MA, from Harvard University, Cambridge and Massachusetts set out to find if people are predisposed towards selfishness, behaving cooperatively only through active self-control or if they are intuitively cooperative, refraining from doing so only after a conscious effort. What they found was truly interesting.

According to their study, which consisted of ten economic games, subjects who reach their decisions more quickly are are more cooperative, and furthermore, forcing subjects to act more quickly makes them more willing to cooperate and share, while on the contrary, forcing them to think for a longer period of time makes them decreases social contributions.

In order to explain and interpret these results, researchers explained that cooperation is intuitive because cooperative heuristics are developed in daily life where cooperation is typically advantageous.

Scientific source