Counterfactual thinking in cooperation dynamics

Moniz Pereira, Luis; Santos, Francisco C.


Counterfactual Thinking is a human cognitive ability studied in a wide variety of domains. It captures the process of reasoning about a past event that did not occur, namely what would have happened had this event occurred, or, otherwise, to reason about an event that did occur but what would ensue had it not. Given the wide cognitive empowerment of counterfactual reasoning in the human individual, the question arises of how the presence of individuals with this capability may improve cooperation in populations of self-regarding individuals. Here we propose a mathematical model, grounded on Evolutionary Game Theory, to examine the population dynamics emerging from the interplay between counterfactual thinking and social learning (i.e., individuals that learn from the actions and success of others) whenever the individuals in the population face a collective dilemma. Our results suggest that counterfactual reasoning fosters coordination in collective action problems occurring in large populations, and has a limited impact on cooperation dilemmas in which coordination is not required. Moreover, we show that a small prevalence of individuals resorting to counterfactual thinking is enough to nudge an entire population towards highly cooperative standards.