Two scientists in a lab

Trust me, I’m a scientist

Although we do fall out occasionally, human society is notable for its degree of cooperation between individuals

Cooperation presents a difficulty for evolutionary theory, which at its simplest suggests that individuals should just look out for themselves. Research suggests that there is a genetic component underlying this phenomenon, in which even less-closely related individuals help each other.

More sophisticated analyses, though, show that helping others can bring you benefits – the phenomenon of indirect reciprocity: you help somebody, somebody else helps you. This analysis can explain how factors such as reputation, perceived moral character and other aspects of social communication can develop.

We know a little about the brain systems responsible for these phenomena. Logical reasoning plays a part but is not the whole story. One interesting player is the hormone oxytocin, which encourages bonding. When given to subjects playing a risky investment game, it makes them more trusting of their (unidentified) partners.

Lead image:

The US Food and Drug Administration/Flickr CC BY

References

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Genetics and genomics, Neuroscience, Ecology and environment
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development