Drawing (1)Research

The aim of this research is to learn more about cooperation  and culture in humans. Cooperation is a cornerstone of human social organisation, but its existence is something of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists. The question is, why do people help each other, when being selfish would save them time and resources? One set of theories suggest that people help others based on whether they belong to the same family or whether others have helped them before (reciprocity). Another set of theories argue that societies have evolved cultural norms of cooperation, which regulate large-scale cooperation. Yet other theories suggest that demographic characteristics of populations, such as their size and patterns of migration, may be important drivers of cooperation and competition.

My research focuses on testing these ideas in real-world populations to try and understand what explains the cultural variation in cooperation observed across populations.


Current Projects

1. Building wells in rural India (funded by ESRC)

The aim of this project is to examine how people cooperate when facing a high stakes, real-world cooperative dilemma. The building and maintenance of wells for water is a classic public goods dilemma; everyone benefits from the water whether they help to build and maintain the wells or not. Between January and July 2015, we offered 10 randomly chosen Pahari Korwa villages money to build wells. We provided building materials but villagers had to commit unpaid voluntary labour to construct the wells. Villages decided collectively whether they would build, how many wells they would build (up to a maximum of 6 per village) and where they would site them. 6 of 10 villages decided to build and a total of 23 wells are being built across them. The remaining villages decided that they could not invest any voluntary labour. During the building process we have been collecting observational data, with and without video cameras, to record who built the wells and how much they participated; these data provide a measure of cooperative behaviour. We are also collecting a range of demographic, socio-economic, social network and genealogical data for the villages to test what factors predict participation in this cooperative dilemma. 9 wells are presently complete. Over the next few years we will use these data to examine what sorts of factors affect participation in the cooperative task of well building. We will also track changes in water use as a result of these wells and whether they get maintained or not and to what extent. More info>

2. The effects of demography and migration on cooperation and competition: a large-scale field study (funded by ESRC)

The degree and scale of cooperation varies considerably across human populations and many authors have attributed this variation to cultural differences. However, it remains unclear what drives this cultural variation. A substantial body of theory in evolutionary biology predicts that demographic characteristics of populations, such as their size and patterns of migration, may be important drivers of cooperation and competition. But these theoretical ideas have never been empirically tested in human populations. We are empirically testing these ideas in a set of real- world populations in order to investigate whether demographic influences on cooperation and competition explain the cultural variation observed across populations.

We are working in multiple populations of two small-scale Indian societies with contrasting systems of marriage and wealth inheritance. A combination of economic games, behavioural surveys, and observations of contributions to public works will be used to measure levels of cooperation in multiple populations of a matrilocal society (the Khasi of Meghalaya), where typically men are the migrating sex and wealth is transmitted via the female line, and a patrilocal society (the Pahari Korwa of Chhattisgarh), where women are the migrating sex and wealth is transmitted via the male line. These data are being used to test whether the contrasting patterns of sex-biased migration in these two societies affect the social networks and levels of cooperation within and between the sexes. We are also investigating how migration interacts with other demographic features of a population, such as its size and age-structure, to affect the behavior of individuals.

3.Technology & the diffusion of innovations
(Collaborator: Dr. Alexandra Alvergne)

A major debate in the social sciences concerns what strategies individuals use when they decide to adopt an innovation or not. Do people use their own assessment of the value of a technology or do they imitate others? The first strategy may be based on more accurate information about the technology but requires individuals to spend more time and effort gathering it. The second strategy may reduce the time and effort spent gathering information but can sometimes result in them copying the wrong behaviour. Recent evolutionary models of cultural change have considered the trade-off between accuracy and expense to predict the conditions under which different adoption strategies should be used; yet, to date, they remain largely untested. This project addresses this deficit by examining the processes underlying the uptake of innovations in two Indian societies: the Pahari Korwa (forager-horticulturists) and the Khasi (swidden-agriculturists). We are studying the uptake of several different type of technologies including sanitation, health and agriculture.

4. Self Deception
(Collaborator: Dr. Vivek Nityananda)

Self-deception - individual’s false beliefs about their abilities - is widespread in humans even though it can lead to disastrous consequences such as airplane crashes and financial meltdowns. Why is this potentially harmful trait so common? A controversial theory proposes that self-deception evolved to facilitate the deception of others. We are empirically testing this idea in humans.