Foley M, Smead R, Forber P, Riedl C (2021) Avoiding the bullies: The resilience of cooperation among unequals. PLoS Comput Biol 17(4): e1008847.
Individuals often differ in their ability to resolve conflicts in their favor, and this can lead to the emergence of hierarchies and dominant alphas. Such social structures present a serious risk of destabilizing cooperative social interactions or norms. Why work together to find food when a more aggressive or stronger individual can take all of it? In this paper we use game theory and agent-based modeling to investigate how cooperative behavior evolves in the presence of powerful bullies who have no incentive to cooperate. We show that when individuals can choose their interaction partners, bullies do not always destabilize cooperation. Instead, cooperative norms survive as individuals learn to avoid dominant individuals who become isolated in the population. When competitive ability itself depends dynamically on past success, complex cycles of coupled network-strategy-rank changes emerge: effective collaborators gain popularity and thus power, adopt aggressive behavior, get isolated, then lose power. Our results have important implications: in our modeled scenario the rich do not always get richer, the dominance of bullies can be broken, and inequality in accrued resources can be eliminated. Thus, our work provides new insight into potential sources of, and strategies for avoiding, resource inequality.
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