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


Further reading

About this resource

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

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