Where did cooperation come from? Why do people (and animals) help each other? What's in it for them? It's a fundamental question that scientists have been asking for years—and a new study in birds is helping to explain how the idea of cooperation first evolved in the animal kingdom.
William Feeney and colleagues studied birds known as superb fairy-wrens, which sometimes team up and work in groups of three or more to raise baby birds in their nests. This type of behavior is known as cooperative breeding, and it's been associated with slow-paced lifestyles; monogamous relationships, in which couples partner up for life; and unpredictable, changing environments.
The researchers say that something else might inspire cooperation among these fairy-wrens too: the presence of brood parasites, or "cheating" birds like cuckoos that sneak their eggs into fairy-wren nests, according to the December 19, 2013 news release, "Where did cooperation come from?" Feeney and his team noticed that two regions of the world—sub-Saharan Africa and Australasia, which includes Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and neighboring Pacific islands—have become hotspots for both cooperative breeding and brood parasites over the years. They discovered that cooperatively breeding birds were more likely to be targeted by brood parasites in those regions, and that parasites usually grew bigger and survived longer when they associated themselves with the cooperating birds.
The researchers also found that larger groups of cooperating birds could resist the parasites better than smaller groups of the birds. And taken together, their results suggest that the two different behaviors—cooperative breeding and brood parasitism—actually reinforce each other. Parasites receive better care from cooperatively breeding birds, they say, but cooperating birds have better chances of defending themselves.
In light of their findings, the researchers suggest that brood parasitism—cheating birds, like cuckoos—may have been a factor that helped cooperation take root in bird populations long ago. Like science? You may also wish to check out the site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Helping many others only a few times boosts social standing more than helping only a few many times
Locally, here in Sacramento and Davis, the University of California, Davis seems to always be looking for volunteers. For example, the UCD Developmental Psychology website looks for parents with children to volunteer for psychology department studies. At UC Davis exciting research on children and young adults of all ages, including investigations of cognition, perception, emotional adjustment, and social interaction take place in the psychology studies areas.
Whenever old studies finish, new studies begin, and this creates many possibilities for volunteers to become involved in helping us learn more about the developing mind. If you are interested in having your child participate in any of these studies, and possibly participating yourself, please go to the sign up section which will let you provide us with some basic information. When UC Davis has a study that would be right for your child or for you, they'll contact you to make sure you are still interested, and try to arrange a time that works best for you. Thousands of parents and children have had positive learning experiences while participating in UC Davis studies, and we hope to provide the same for you.
There are also health-related studies, mostly for adults. The interesting note is that helping a greater number of people improves one's reputation more than the total number of helpful acts you do, according to a new study at another university.
Recently, anthropologist Shane Macfarlan from the University of Missouri-Columbia found that helping a greater number of people had a larger influence on improving one’s reputation than the total number of helpful acts. Helping many people boosts social standing more than helping many times, says an anthropologist in a new study.
The latest research could guide business and political decisions as well as charity work. For example, a business may build a better reputation as a good corporate citizen by donating $100,000 to 10 charities, as opposed to $1 million to one charity, suggested University of Missouri-Columbia anthropologist Shane Macfarlan.
Contrary to earlier assumptions in theoretical biology, Macfarlan's research found that helping a greater number of people builds a positive reputation more than helping a few people many times. The results of this research can offer guidance to businesses and politicians on how to improve their public images. “Good reputations are good business. For example, buyers tend to purchase from merchants with numerous positive ratings on internet-based commerce websites, such as Amazon and eBay,” said Shane Macfarlan, in a June 26, 2013 news release, "Helping Many People Boosts Social Standing More Than Helping Many Times, Says MU Anthropologist."
Macfarlan is a post-doctoral anthropology researcher in MU’s College of Arts and Science. “Beyond the realm of commerce, the power of a positive reputation may have influenced the evolution of language and cooperation in our species. In our study, we found that an individual’s reputation improves more after helping a greater number of people compared to performing a greater number of helpful acts for fewer people.”
For example, a politician hoping for reelection may wish to back legislation that benefits many people, as opposed to giving tremendous help to a smaller group, noted Macfarlan. Political scientists recently contacted Macfarlan about applying his findings to public figures and their attempts to build positive reputations.
In his research, Macfarlan studied the work habits and reputations of men in a remote village on the Caribbean island of Dominica. The isolation of the village reduced outside influences on reputation and allowed the study to focus solely on the effects of specific behaviors on social standing. On the island of Dominica, the men were all involved in the production of bay oil, a tree leaf extract used to make cosmetics by companies such as Burt’s Bees. Bay oil production is labor intensive, so village men require assistance from each other. Macfarlan identified why some men attracted both many volunteer helpers and the respect of their peers, while other men had few helpers and little regard in the community.
“Helping numerous other men led to individuals achieving higher regard among their peers,” Macfarlan said in the news release. “However, other men, who helped a smaller number of people, would end up with a worse reputation, although both men performed a similar total number of helping acts. Moreover, men with the best reputations received a greater amount of assistance from a greater number of people when they needed it most, whether it was in agricultural production or assistance after disasters, such as hurricanes.”
Reputation-based cooperation is a healthy trend
Previously, researchers creating computer models of reputation-based cooperation had only considered the effect of the number of acts of cooperation on reputations, not the breadth of cooperation. Macfarlan’s real-world observations of how reputations are built could lead to improvements in modeling human social interaction.
The study, “Cooperative Behavior and Pro-social Reputation Dynamics in a Dominican Village,” is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Proceedings B is the Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal, dedicated to the rapid publication and broad dissemination of high-quality research papers, reviews and comment and reply papers. The scope of the journal is diverse and is especially strong in organismal biology. University of Missouri-Columbia. Shane Macfarlan found that helping a greater number of people had a larger influence on improving one’s reputation than the total number of helpful acts.