Understanding cooperation in humans: lessons from experimental economics

Co-presented with the School of Economics, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney

Professor Simon Gaechter, 27 July 2011

Understanding cooperation is an important issue in all social and behavioural sciences. A cooperation problem arises when group interest and individual interest are in conflict. There is plenty of evidence that there is a high level of cooperation even in large groups and among genetically unrelated individuals. Professor Gächter presented the perspective of experimental economics on this issue.

In the first part of this talk Professor Gächter introduced the methods that experimental economists use to study cooperation, and present results regarding both the prevalence and breakdown of cooperation. The breakdown of cooperation seems almost inevitable and occurs in almost all populations studied so far. This finding changes dramatically, however, if punishment of free riders is possible.

In the second part of his talk Professor Gächter explored the question of whether these results can be generalised across cultures, presenting results of a large-scale study conducted in sixteen subject pools around the world. The results show surprising cross-cultural similarities in cooperation in the absence of punishment, but very large variability in punishment behaviour–with dramatic consequences for cooperation. He also presented evidence that the societal / cultural background has an important impact on behaviour that deserves more attention.


Professor Simon Gätcher

Simon Gächter is currently a Professor of the Psychology of Economic Decision Making at the University of Nottingham, UK. He received his doctorate in Economics in Vienna. Before coming to Nottingham he worked at the Universities of Vienna, Linz, Zurich, and St. Gallen. He is also affiliated with the CESifo network (Munich), the Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA Bonn).

His main research interests are in the field of experimental and behavioural economics. He has long been interested in the role of social norms in economic decision making. His research draws on insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology and biology and uses methods from experimental economics to understand basic issues in the psychology of human cooperation. In recent years, he has also been interested in the role of cultural influences on norms of cooperation. His research has been published in Science, Nature, and economic journals such as the American Economic Review and Econometrica.