Social norm complexity and past reputations in the evolution of cooperation

Indirect reciprocity is the most elaborate and cognitively demanding1 of all known cooperation mechanisms2, and is the most specifically human1,3 because it involves reputation and status. By helping someone, individuals may increase their reputation, which may change the predisposition of others to help them in future. The revision of an individual’s reputation depends on the social norms that establish what characterizes a good or bad action and thus provide a basis for morality3. Norms based on indirect reciprocity are often sufficiently complex that an individual’s ability to follow subjective rules becomes important4,5,6, even in models that disregard the past reputations of individuals, and reduce reputations to either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and actions to binary decisions7,8. Here we include past reputations in such a model and identify the key pattern in the associated norms that promotes cooperation. Of the norms that comply with this pattern, the one that leads to maximal cooperation (greater than 90 per cent) with minimum complexity does not discriminate on the basis of past reputation; the relative performance of this norm is particularly evident when we consider a ‘complexity cost’ in the decision process. This combination of high cooperation and low complexity suggests that simple moral principles can elicit cooperation even in complex environments.


Social norm complexity and past reputations in the evolution of cooperation
Fernando P. Santos, Francisco C. Santos & Jorge M. Pacheco
Nature volume 555, pages 242–245 (08 March 2018)