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Economists find in large groups, money facilitates cooperation

Posted August 28, 2013


Early human societies consisted of small, tight-knit groups of individuals who knew each other. Members probably cooperated with one another based on prior experience and the expectation that individual beneficiaries of generosity would reciprocate. However, large, modern societies depend on transactions between strangers who may have no further contact after the transaction finishes. According to research by Gabriele Camera of the Economic Science Institute at Chapman University in Orange, California and his colleagues, money allows members of a large group to maintain trust when interacting with strangers, and therefore facilitates cooperation in modern societies. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s relatively easy to decide whether you should cooperate with someone you already know. Have they proved trustworthy before? If you do them a favor, are they likely to do something for you in the future? In early hunter-gatherer societies, where everyone knew everyone else, determining when to cooperate and when to refuse probably wasn’t very difficult.

Today, however, we interact frequently with strangers. For society to run smoothly, we must cooperate with people we’ve never met before and may never see again.

To find out whether money makes people in large societies more likely to cooperate, Camera’s team designed a helping game, dividing subjects into pairs consisting of a “consumer” and a “producer.” The consumer had the opportunity to help the producer, for a small cost.


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