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The Hard Problem of Cooperation

Kimmo Eriksson and Pontus Strimling

PLOS ONE, 2012, vol. 7, issue 7, 1-12

Abstract: Based on individual variation in cooperative inclinations, we define the “hard problem of cooperation” as that of achieving high levels of cooperation in a group of non-cooperative types. Can the hard problem be solved by institutions with monitoring and sanctions? In a laboratory experiment we find that the answer is affirmative if the institution is imposed on the group but negative if development of the institution is left to the group to vote on. In the experiment, participants were divided into groups of either cooperative types or non-cooperative types depending on their behavior in a public goods game. In these homogeneous groups they repeatedly played a public goods game regulated by an institution that incorporated several of the key properties identified by Ostrom: operational rules, monitoring, rewards, punishments, and (in one condition) change of rules. When change of rules was not possible and punishments were set to be high, groups of both types generally abided by operational rules demanding high contributions to the common good, and thereby achieved high levels of payoffs. Under less severe rules, both types of groups did worse but non-cooperative types did worst. Thus, non-cooperative groups profited the most from being governed by an institution demanding high contributions and employing high punishments. Nevertheless, in a condition where change of rules through voting was made possible, development of the institution in this direction was more often voted down in groups of non-cooperative types. We discuss the relevance of the hard problem and fit our results into a bigger picture of institutional and individual determinants of cooperative behavior.

Date: 2012
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DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040325

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