PennToday: “It’s a big part of what makes us human: we cooperate. But humans aren’t saints. Most of us are more likely to help someone we consider good than someone we consider a jerk.
How we form these moral assessments of others has a lot to do with cultural and social norms, as well as our capacity for empathy, the extent to which we can take on the perspective of another person.
In a new analysis, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania investigate cooperation with an evolutionary approach. Using game-theory-driven models, they show that a capacity for empathy fosters cooperation, according to senior author Joshua Plotkin, an evolutionary biologist. The models also show that the extent to which empathy promotes cooperation depends on a given society’s system for moral evaluation.
“Having not just the capacity but the willingness to take into account someone else’s perspective when forming moral judgments tends to promote cooperation,” says Plotkin.
What’s more, the group’s analysis points to a heartening conclusion. All else being equal, empathy tends to spread throughout a population under most scenarios.
“We asked, ‘can empathy evolve?’” explains Arunas Radzvilavicius, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher who works with Plotkin. “What if individuals start copying the empathetic way of observing each other’s interactions? And we saw that empathy soared through the population.”
Plenty of scientists have probed the question of why individuals cooperate through indirect reciprocity, a scenario in which one person helps another not because of a direct quid pro quo but because they know that person to be “good.” But the Penn group gave the study a nuance that others had not explored. Whereas other studies have assumed that reputations are universally known, Plotkin, Radzvilavicius, and Stewart realized this did not realistically describe human society, where individuals may differ in their opinion of others’ reputations.
“In large, modern societies, people disagree a lot about each other’s moral reputations,” Plotkin says.
The researchers incorporated this variation in opinions into their models, which imagine someone choosing either to donate or not to donate to a second person based on that individual’s reputation. The researchers found that cooperation was less likely to be sustained when people disagree about each other’s reputations.
That’s when they decided to incorporate empathy, or theory of mind, which, in the context of the study, entails the ability to understand the perspective of another person.
Doing so allowed cooperation to win out over more selfish strategies….(More)”.