Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
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A preference to learn from successful rather than common behaviours in human social dilemmas


Human cooperation is often claimed to be special and requiring explanations based on gene–culture coevolution favouring a desire to copy common social behaviours. If this is true, then individuals should be motivated to both observe and copy common social behaviours. Previous economic experiments, using the public goods game, have suggested individuals' desire to sacrifice for the common good and to copy common social behaviours. However, previous experiments have often not shown examples of success. Here we test, on 489 participants, whether individuals are more motivated to learn about, and more likely to copy, either common or successful behaviours. Using the same social dilemma and standard instructions, we find that individuals were primarily motivated to learn from successful rather than common behaviours. Consequently, social learning disfavoured costly cooperation, even when individuals could observe a stable, pro-social level of cooperation. Our results call into question explanations for human cooperation based on cultural evolution and/or a desire to conform with common social behaviours. Instead, our results indicate that participants were motivated by personal gain, but initially confused, despite receiving standard instructions. When individuals could learn from success, they learned to cooperate less, suggesting that human cooperation is maybe not so special after all.


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