🔎Facty Friday Edition #101: Cooperation and Corruption

This 101st edition of Facty Friday considers the conditions that support human cooperation and how those institutions can be corrupted.


Cooperation outperforms betrayal in the long-term…when betrayal is punished

Human societies require immense cooperation. A seminal study sought to explain the conditions under which that cooperation evolved. The researchers tested strategies that self-interested agents could use to maximize their own long-term benefit. They observed that cooperation generally outperforms betrayal in the long-term, even when betrayal yields better short-term outcomes. Cooperation outperforms betrayal in the long-term due to reciprocity: cooperation fosters future cooperation and betrayal fosters future betrayal. This research shows how cooperation can evolve even if everyone has purely selfish goals. This research is so influential that there is now an online game to explain the findings.

Institutions can punish betrayal, but who watches the watchers?

If cooperation requires that betrayal be punished, who does the punishing? One article studied how different societies solve that problem. In small-scale societies, punishment can be done by peers. But in large-scale societies, where most people do not observe the behaviors of other people, punishment is done by government institutions like the police and judiciary. However, this solution can lead to problems if the institutions are corrupt – betrayers can bribe the institution to not punish them. Transparency, a common initiative to reduce corruption, does often reduce corruption but can also increase corruption by revealing that everyone else is accepting bribes and you’d be a fool not to. This research highlights the varied ways societies solve similar problems and shows that solutions effective in one society may be ineffective in societies with different norms and institutions.

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