Tag: Prosociality

Competition can encourage prosocial behaviour to spread

A defining aspect of our species’ success is our unusually high levels of cooperation. In particular, our ability to cooperate with others who are not related to us.

The scale of cooperation among humans is rare in the animal kingdom, and is strongly at odds with our closest primate relatives. However, evolutionary explanations for our level of prosociality is an ongoing scientific debate.

Traditionally, evolutionary scientists have explained prosocial behaviour by modelling the evolutionary benefits to the individual (or more specifically, the individual’s genes). For example, prosociality can evolve among non-relatives based on reciprocation (‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’), or if altruists are deemed more attractive romantic partners (and therefore have more babies).

However, an emerging class of inter-disciplinary scientists are viewing our large-scale cooperation as a product of cultural group selection’. That is, traits favouring prosocial behaviour can evolve via culture, due to the competitive advantage they bestow to a group. This is a type of cultural evolution, and does not involve natural selection working on genes. 

Although the theory is well developed, empirical evidence documenting cultural group selection is still accumulating

To shed some light on the matter, economists Patrick Francois and his colleagues Thomas Fujiwara and Tanguy van Ypersele recently published a paper in Science Advancesexploring cultural group selection in the workplace and the laboratory. 

Banking on trust

What is particularly interesting about this paper is that the researchers analysed industry data to test their hypotheses. As stated by the authors; “Perhaps the most ubiquitous avenue of group-level competition occurring in contemporary settings is likely to be competition across firms.”

Patrick and his colleagues hypothesised that companies subject to more intense external competition would be more likely to foster cooperation among their employees. In other words, increased external competition would encourage employees to suppress selfishness and increase cooperative behaviour, in the interest of the firm’s survival. 

The authors used ‘generalised trust’ as their measure of prosocial behaviour (that is, answers to the question; “Do you think that, on the whole, people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”). Their reasoning was that survey-based questions of trust reflect the level of pro-social behaviour individuals perceive of others around them.

The authors used a range of data sources to test their hypothesis. 

Firstly, Patrick and his colleagues explored the relationship between the competitiveness of industries, and the level of trust employees report.

To do this, the authors used data from the United States’ General Social Survey, which includes measures of trust among employees. The competitiveness of an industry was calculated by the percentage of total sales in an industry not covered by the largest 50 firms. 

You can see the relationship below:   

Americans who work in more competitive industries are more likely to trust.

Although a strong relationship between competitiveness and trust was identified, the authors note that this is weak evidence of competition increasing trust. As this data is correlational, it cannot explain causality. Likewise, it may be others factors which are driving this relationship, which haven’t been acknowledged. 

To get round this conundrum, you’d need a naturalistic experiment where competition is increased within an industry, with levels of trust measured before and after this introduction. 

 It turns out such a natural experiment was provided by an episode of American banking deregulation.

Starting in the early 1980’s, several US states lifted restrictions which prohibited banks from operating in other states across the country. This deregulation increased the availability of credit, which in turn facilitated the creation of new firms- and therefore raised the amount of competition within these local markets. 

Of particular interest to the researchers was that different states undertook the deregulation at different times.

What they found is that in the years after the deregulation was introduced, there were significant increases in levels of reported trust. As expected by the authors, firm competition increased with the banking reforms (with more firms created and subsequent business closures).

These broader impacts apparently continued for 10 years after the deregulation was initially introduced. 

Banking deregulation in U.S. states raised firm competition and trust.

Survey data from German employees was also analysed as part of the study, as this allowed the researchers to observe how trust is impacted when workers move to more competitive industries. Similar to the data from the US, Francois and his colleagues found that German workers who moved to more competitive industries reported higher levels of trust.

Although these observational findings provide considerable insight, there are also limitations to this approach.

Fundamentally, using observational data means you can’t be sure of the effect you’ve found, or that you can confidently rule out alternative explanations. To get around this, the researchers also conducted laboratory experiments.

Back to the lab

These experiments were conducted in France, and tested whether changes in levels of competition across groups would impact trust and cooperation. 

A strategic economic game called the Public Goods Game was employed for the experiments.

Participants were placed into pairs, and were allocated to one of two versions of the game. The first was a standard version of the game, with no group competition. 

For each version of the experiment, 20 people were placed into groups of 2. Each player was given €10 per round. Participants were given the choice on how much they wanted to contribute to the ‘collective pot’, which would benefit both group members equally.

The game presents a dilemma. By the end of each round, the collective pool is increased by 1.5 times. Although good for the group overall, this means each individual’s contributions is actually a net cost (providing €0.75 for every €1 they contribute to the pot). 

If your objective is to maximise your own earnings, then the best strategy is therefore to contribute nothing. However, this undermines the greater success your group would have if both of you cooperated and contributed more money. 

Individuals were paired anonymously, and were told the outcome at the end of each round. They were then paired with a new partner, and played a total of 19 rounds. Participants were asked some questions after the experiment, with the main one being generalised trust.

The second condition of the experiment was the same, but with a twist.

The amount they received from the collective pool depended not only on their group’s contributions, but also on the size of their collective pot relative to other groups. Only if their collective pot matched or surpassed another equivalent group, did the group members receive their slice of the pie. 

So what happened?

As what almost always happens when playing the standard version of the Public Goods Game, the researchers observed declining contributions as the game progressed. Initial contributions were also low, with participants chipping in just over €2 for the first round on average.

However, there was a big difference in the second ‘competitive’ condition. As the graph below illustrates, group competition induced significantly higher contributions to the collective pot, which was sustained across all of the rounds. 

Contributions in the first round were also twice as high with group competition, and stayed higher throughout the game. 

Introducing competition in public good laboratory game increases contributions and propensity to trust.

The players may have increased their contributions for various reasons, such as feeling inclined to reciprocate. However, the authors point out that players also increased their contributions when they saw their competitors performing well. They also don’t see this as evidence of reciprocation, as each partner was drawn afresh for each round. 

Instead, Patrick and his colleagues argue these findings show cultural group selection at work; “mimicry of the actions or norms in successful groups leading to diffusion of those norms into the broader population.”

Cooperation from competition

The theory that evolution works at the level of the group, rather than the conventional level of the individual, is controversial. Likewise, there is no clear consensus among scientists regarding the importance of group selection (also known as multilevel selection) to evolution.

Although less contested than its genetic grandfather, cultural group selection also remains controversial, and not everyone is convinced. 

Exhibit A:


Oliver Curry made some valid points on Twitter, outlining potential limitations of the study’s design and the inferences made by the authors. 

Can the data presented be best explained by cultural group selection, over and above other well established theories of cooperation (such as mutualism)? As the connection to theory within the paper isn’t made clear, it’s difficult to answer this question.

What isn’t obvious to me is why external competition would increase trust per se, rather than cooperative behaviour by itself. Oliver Curry argues that cooperation and trust are not separate, and that trust is simply the expectation of cooperation. However, there is experimental evidence suggesting that they are indeed distinct concepts, and that is it useful to separate them.

In a subsequent Twitter exchange, Tim Waring also acknowledges the studies limitations, but argues the study does ultimately support the authors’ conclusions. 


Future research will hopefully address these points raised. 

Despite the critiques of this particular study, cultural group selection arguably offers a powerful explanation for the evolution of large-scale human cooperation. Although traditional evolutionary theories explain much of human cooperation, they don’t seem able to explain how a hominid species that evolved for life in small groups came to develop chiefdoms, nation states, and the modern corporation.

For the purpose of this blog, I assume the majority of business practitioners aren’t particularly bothered about the underlying evolutionary theory. Regardless of the best scientific explanations available, it’s evident that greater external competition increases prosocial behaviour within groups.

This knowledge could be used to increase trust among employees and to make groups more productive. This may be achieved by changing group structures, and rewarding teams as opposed to individual outputs. Similarly, businesses may want to foster an organisational culture where considerable attention is focused on the threats posed by external competition.

However, it’s easy to see how such knowledge can also be abused. Many leaders seem to intuitively grasp how external threats influence behaviour, with the potential for manipulation. As an extreme example, one can be cynical and think of dark triad world leaders who may be tempted to wage war as a means of boosting their political support (no need to mention names here). 

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

The HEXACO Model of Personality from an Evolutionary Perspective

From an evolutionary perspective, the existence of personality differences presents a puzzle. Natural selection tends to weed out variation that deviates from optimal adaptations. Therefore, how are personality differences maintained in local environments?

In September’s edition of Evolution & Human Behavior, psychologist Reinout E. de Vries and his colleagues present a general framework which addresses this puzzle. In the process, the authors review the latest scientific developments in personality psychology, and attempt to explain the origins of personality differences.

The authors contend that individual differences likely arose because different situations favour different personality traits. From an evolutionary perspective, the fitness pay-offs of phenotypes vary across time and place.

However, what exactly are these traits that vary across individuals?

Although the authors provide an extensive review of competing models of personality, I will limit the overview to the most robust models in personality psychology.

The Big Five

Psychology has moved on from the days of psychoanalytic personality topographies. Rather depressingly however, there remains plenty of demand for such personality tests in the business world.

Rather than there being fixed categories of personalities, a convergence of evidence from various sources supports the existence of at least five independent dimensions of personality. This research accumulated into the Big Five model of personality, with the five factors being: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (inversely, emotional stability).

Each factor is composed of traits with characteristics indicating high and low levels of the personality dimension. Studies suggest that these five factors are normally distributed, and are largely stable throughout a person’s lifetime.

Due to it’s high validity and reliability, the Big Five has long been considered the gold standard of personality testing.

Despite the model’s credentials, researchers have since identified some limitations of the Big Five. Most importantly, the authors argue that the Big Five has limited ability to identify dark triad personalities. That is, crucial aspects of personality such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism,  are not well detected by the Big Five model.

This shortcoming led to the development of a new model of personality: the ‘HEXACO model’.

The HEXACO Model

De Vries and his colleagues state that although the HEXACO model is broadly aligned with the Big Five, there are also noticeable differences. The most significant difference is that the HEXACO model includes honesty/ humility added as sixth independent factor of personality.

The authors define honesty/ humility as traits pertaining to sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance, modesty, and inversely deceitfulness– noting that these traits are largely absent from the Big Five.

Studies comparing the two models demonstrates that with the inclusion  of honesty/humility, the HEXACO model is able to explain more variance in antisocial personality traits– including psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Conversely, the honesty/ humility dimension also explains more variance in prosociality, such as cooperativeness.

The authors highlight other discrepancies from the Big Five. For example, the HEXACO model’s agreeableness and emotionality partially, but incompletely, overlap with the Big Five’s dimensions of agreeableness and emotional stability. These differences have implications for both the predictive validity of both models, and for theorising about the evolution of personality.

The authors summarise the advantages of HEXACO as follows (p. 411):

In sum, when compared to the Big Five model, the HEXACO model (1) has offered a better description of the largest set of replicable factors that have emerged in comparative cross-cultural lexical research, and (2) has been found to better predict a number of important criteria, including counterproductive, delinquent, and outright criminal behaviors, sexual exploitative behaviors, and prosocial behaviors such as cooperation.

Situational Affordances

What circumstances may have led to the emergence of these dimensions of personality? Historically, psychologists have failed to address this question.

De Vries and his colleagues argue that recurrent situational challenges may have promoted the emergence of these personality dimensions.

People experience a wide range of different situations throughout their lives. However the authors argue that if situations vary reliably across time and location, then different personality traits that fit well (or poorly) with these situations will emerge.

Following from a review of the literature on ‘situational affordances’, De Vries and his colleagues develop a framework for the evolution of personality.

The framework outlines the six domains of situational affordances, and maps the relevant personality dimension which addresses such challenges.

For example, some situations allow for personal gain at the expense of others, or allow for behaviours that are beneficial to others. In situations that that permit exploitation, the authors propose that low honesty/ humility behaviours are more likely to pay-off. However strategies employed by people low in honesty/ humility in stable or supervised environments are likely to be punished and suffer consequences.

De Vries et al (2016) The situational affordances framework of personality evolution
The situational affordances framework of personality evolution (De Vries et al, 2016, p. 414)

By testing the propositions laid out in their situational affordances framework, the authors contend that  “further progress can be made in unravelling the ‘enigma of personality’.” (p. 418).

What’s the relevance to business?

Intuitively, low levels of honesty/ humility is associated with work place delinquency (e.g. steeling from your employer).

Research suggests that people high in honesty/ humility have more negative views on theft, and report stealing less money than their less honest counterparts. Additionally, honesty/ humility predicts supervisor ratings of workplace performance, above and beyond ratings of the other five factors of personality.

Appreciating its predictive power in identifying dark triad personalities and workplace delinquency, organisational psychologists and recruitment specialists should make it a priority to measure candidates’ levels of honesty/ humility during the recruitment process. Even if HR professionals are adhering to best practice and using models based on the Big Five taxonomy, they may still be omitting one of the most important aspects of personality.

To put it another way, a combination of low honesty/ humility, low conscientiousness and low agreeableness is the nightmare of every employer. Scientific personality assessments can help prevent such nightmares becoming a reality

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to read the full paper. 

de Vries, R. E., Tybur, J. M., Pollet, T. V., & van Vugt, M. (2016). Evolution, situational affordances, and the HEXACO model of personality. Evolution and human behavior, 37(5), 407-421



Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., & de Vries, R. E. (2014). The HEXACO Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Emotionality factors: A review of research and theory. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(2), 139-152

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2017) The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential. Piatkus

de Vries, R. E. (2016). The nightmare of every employer: The explosive mix of low Honesty Humility, low Conscientiousness, and low Agreeableness. GEDRAG & ORGANISATIE, 29(4), 316-346

Grant, A. (2013). Goodbye to MBTI: The fad that won’t die. Psychology Today. Available here

Johnson, M.K., Rowatt, W. C., & Petrini, L. (2011). A new trait on the market: Honesty-Humility as a unique predictor of job performance ratings. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, pp. 857-862

Miller, G. (2009). Spent: Sex, evolution, and consumer behavior. Penguin.

Pinker, S. (2003). The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature. Penguin.


Charismatic Leadership Through the Lens of Evolution

One of the defining features of human psychology is our extraordinary prosociality. How can cooperation and prosocial behaviour be maintained, despite the immediate temptations to free-ride and deflect?

In a paper published in the September edition of the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, organisational psychologists Allen Grabo and Mark van Vugt explore the origins and functions of charismatic leadership.

Charismatic leaders have played a prominent role throughout history, and yet a definition of what charismatic leadership actually is remains elusive.

The authors argue that the ultimate function of charismatic leadership is to effectively promote and sustain prosocial behaviour within groups. Using the terminology of evolutionary psychology, the authors contend charismatic leadership is “[…] a signalling process in which a leader conveys their ability to solve urgent coordination and cooperation challenges in groups”.

They continue:

This process is context-dependent, but fundamentally consists of (1) attracting attention to recruit followers, (2) making use of extraordinary rhetorical abilities and knowledge of cultural symbols and rituals to inspire and offer a vision, (3) minimizing the perceived risks of cooperation, and (4) aligning these followers toward shared goals.

Grabo and van Vugt suggest charismatic leadership helps foster group cohesion, even as populations grow larger and less kin-based than those of our hunter-gather ancestors.

The Charismatic Prosociality Hypothesis

Three studies were conducted to test the ‘charismatic prosociality hypothesis’. The authors recruited participants online, and used charismatic stimuli and experimental economic games to test it.

For the first two studies, the researchers capitalised on the wealth of TED talks available, and identified videos which viewers found similarly interesting but were presented by speakers scoring high or low in charisma. Participants watched either a high or  low charisma scoring TED talk, before participating in experimental economic games: the ‘Dictator‘ and ‘Trust‘ Games.

Participants who had watched the more charismatic TED talk gave more in the Dictator Game than the participants in the non-charismatic condition. For those playing the Trust Game, the Trustees behaved more pro-socially  (returned more of an initial amount sent by the first player) in the charismatic condition, versus the non-charismatic condition.

To test the generalizability of the effects observed in the initial studies, the authors made use of an entirely different ‘charismatic manipulation’. The authors instead primed participants by asking them to imagine a charismatic (or non-charismatic) individual, and to write a short description about this person. Afterwards, the primed respondents participated in the experimental economic games. The authors added ‘The Stag Hunt‘ Game, which measures cooperation in a more abstract way than the strict allocation of money.

The increased prosocial behaviour observed  in the high charisma condition within the Dictator and Trust games was replicated with the prime. In the Stag Game, participants in the charismatic condition were more likely to cooperate than those in the non-charismatic condition.

Overall, the findings provide initial evidence for the theory of charismatic leadership being an instrument to galvanise cooperation and prosociality among strangers.

A limitation of the research methodology arguably further supports the hypothesis: that the studies were confined to online experiments. One would expect significantly stronger prosocial effects when people are exposed to charismatic leaders in naturalistic settings.

The Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership

Of course, the authors focused on the positive aspects of charismatic leadership. Charisma has a dark side, which Grabo and van Vugt acknowledge.

The present article focuses exclusively on the positive effects of charismatic leadership, but this is by no means the entire story. In fact, there is much more to be said about the “dark side” of charismatic leadership, the dangers which can result when a leader takes advantage of the extreme devotion and commitment of followers for selfish or immoral reasons by signaling dishonestly their intentions to benefit the group. History is full of examples of individuals, such as cult members or suicide bombers, who were unable to abandon their commitment to a charismatic leader even in the face of conflicting information, with disastrous outcomes. One way of understanding such actions is to view them as the results of an evolved “psychological immune system” which functions to defend firmly held convictions against change by novel information. While such a system might have been beneficial for group cohesion in the past – when contact with outgroup members was rare and perhaps more dangerous – it is perhaps best considered an evolutionary mismatch in the modern world.

Click here to read the full paper

Post written  by  Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

You can read Max’s review of Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja’s book  Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters here