Max Planck Research Group Dynamics of Social Behavior

Max Planck Research Group Dynamics of Social Behavior

Our group explores under which conditions individuals cooperate. To this end, we translate social interactions into strategic games. These games can then be explored mathematically, with computer simulations, and with behavioral experiments.

In many situations there is a tension between what is good for an individual and what is good for the entire group. A prime example is cooperation, where individuals forego some personal advantage to help their community. From the outset, it seems that cooperation is at odds with evolutionary theory, since cooperators appear not to maximize their personal fitness. However, work over the past decades has identified different mechanisms that allow for the evolution of cooperation even among fitness maximizing individuals. These mechanisms include kin selection (helping one’s relatives), reciprocity (helping in order to receive help in future), and signaling (helping in order to publicly indicate that one is a carrier of a beneficial trait).

In our group, we use mathematical models to explore how these mechanisms lead to cooperation and how these mechanisms interact. To this end, we translate cooperative interactions between individuals into games between players. These games describe which strategies can be employed, and how players learn to adopt new strategies based on their past success. The resulting dynamics can then be described using stochastic processes (e.g., Markov chains), with numerical simulations, and with behavioral experiments.

Our research area has a strong interdisciplinary flavor. In addition to evolutionary biology, it has natural connections to economics (how can we design optimal institutions for cooperation), to psychology (why do we often feel disgust for people who act selfishly), and even moral philosophy (which ethical norms should a cooperative society maintain). On a methodological level, the area has hugely benefitted from contributions of mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists.

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