New Research Shows That Empathy, Not Social Norms, Leads To Cooperation

Arunas Radzvilavicius and a couple of his colleagues have discovered the importance of human empathy when it comes to knowing if people will be cooperative and selfless with one another or not. This was not always the case though, as it was thought that social norms guided cooperation and altruism.

Previous understanding reasoned that humans are more likely to be nicer to the people that they see as morally good, as opposed to those with a bad reputation (meaning a reputation of being morally bad). However, if the social norm is “that being altruistic toward other cooperators earns you a good reputation, cooperation will persist,” Radzvilavicius, a postdoctoral researcher of evolutionary biology at the University of Pennsylvania, said in his The Conversation article.

Essentially, what he means is that if the common understanding is that you’ll have a good reputation if you’re selfless to others who are also morally good, cooperation will continue to exist. This is because, generally speaking, people want to be seen as morally good.

However, according to Radzvilavicius, there’s a problem with this understanding – it’s that this assumes that people agree on the reputations of others, which isn’t the case. People’s reputations aren’t doled out for everyone to agree upon – it’s more complex than that.

Different people may have differing opinions about the reputation of one person, based on factors such as culture, interactions with the person and more. For example, Person A might see Person C as having a good reputation, but Person B might see Person C as having a bad reputation. To put it simply, reputations are relative.

Radzvilavicius’ initial test

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With that in mind, Radzvilavicius set about to use “biology-inspired evolutionary models” to figure out what happens in a realistic situation. Using “mathematical descriptions of large societies” and “computer models to simulate social interactions in much smaller societies that more closely resemble human communities,” Radzvilavicius sought to answer this question: “Can cooperation evolve when there are disagreements about what is considered good or bad?” After all, that is more realistic than everyone agreeing about each others’ reputations.

What he found was that “overall, moral relativity made societies less altruistic,” Radzvilavicius said. “Cooperation almost vanished under most social norms.” This means that when there are disagreements about what’s morally good and bad (and moral principles are good or bad based on circumstances and individuals’ ideas), societies are less selfless and cooperative. However, this goes against the previous understanding of social norms and cooperation.

What is empathy?

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Radzvilavicius noted that looking at something (in this case, moral good and moral bad) from another person’s point of view is something that is special to humans – this is also known as empathy. “We share knowledge on Wikipedia, we show up to vote, and we work together to responsibly manage natural resources,” Radzvilavicius said.

He went on to talk about the importance of empathy. “Moral psychologists have long suggested that empathy can act as social glue, increasing cohesiveness and cooperation of human societies,” Radzvilavicius said. “Empathetic perspective-taking starts developing in infancy, and at least some aspects of empathy are learned from parents and other members of the child’s social network. But how humans evolved empathy in the first place remained a mystery.”

Radzvilavicius’ evolutionary game theory approach

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So Radzvilavicius decided to seek the help of Joshua Plotkin, a theoretical biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Alex Stewart at the University of Houston. Plotkin and Stewart are both experts in game theoretical approaches to human behavior. They decided to use evolutionary game theory (a branch of math) to look at empathy and see if that “might be responsible for sustaining such extraordinarily high levels of cooperation in modern societies,” Radzvilavicius said.

They decided to modify Radzvilavicius’ models to “give individuals the capacity for empathy” and allow “individuals in our model to be able to learn how to be empathetic, simply by observing and copying personality traits of more successful people,” Radzvilavicius said.

The thing is, people care about reputations and the morality of other people’s actions – even if there isn’t an agreed-upon definition of what moral good and moral bad are – that much was clear with the first model. What was new with this model is factoring in the idea that “humans have a remarkable ability to empathetically include other people’s views when deciding that a certain behavior is morally good or bad,” Radzvilavicius said.

The results of this were much more promising. Cooperation shot through the roof and “we observed altruism winning over selfish behavior,” Radzvilavicius said. Additionally, even uncooperative and selfish societies learned how to be empathic. “[Empathy] became socially contagious and spread throughout the population,” Radzvilavicius said. “Empathy made our model societies altruistic again.”

What does this all mean?

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There’s no way that there can be one catch-all theory to explain moral aspects like empathy. However, “by incorporating it into the well-studied framework of evolutionary game theory,” that leaves the door open so that “[o]ther moral emotions like guilt and shame can potentially be studied in the same way,” Radzvilavicius said.

Additionally, in the grand scheme of things, these findings could be helpful in extremely diverse communities where people come from different backgrounds and cultures and have different social norms. “If the effect of empathy is as strong as our theory suggests, there could be ways to use our findings to promote large-scale cooperation in the long term,” Radzvilavicius said, mentioning actions that could be taken to promote empathy. Or, “at least [the communities could] encourage considering the views of those who are different.”

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