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Cooperation among humans, a question of age

Josep Perelló and Mario Gutiérrez Roig, professors from the OpenSystems Research Group of the Department of Fundamental Physics at UB.

Josep Perelló and Mario Gutiérrez Roig, professors from the OpenSystems Research Group of the Department of Fundamental Physics at UB.

The experts Anxo Sánchez (UC3M) and Yamir Moreno (UNIZAR).

The experts Anxo Sánchez (UC3M) and Yamir Moreno (UNIZAR).

The new research paper is one of the first experimental studies in the world to analyze how cooperative attitudes evolve in different age ranges.

The new research paper is one of the first experimental studies in the world to analyze how cooperative attitudes evolve in different age ranges.

The experiment was carried out during the DAU Barcelona Board Games Festival, which took place in Barcelona’s Fábrica de Creación Fabra i Coats in December 2012.

The experiment was carried out during the DAU Barcelona Board Games Festival, which took place in Barcelona’s Fábrica de Creación Fabra i Coats in December 2012.

The initiative was part of the Barcelona Lab platform, promoted by the Management of Creativity and Innovation of the Barcelona Institute of Culture (ICUB).

The initiative was part of the Barcelona Lab platform, promoted by the Management of Creativity and Innovation of the Barcelona Institute of Culture (ICUB).

A virtual version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma was used in the study; the problem comes from game theory and is used as a model for studying human behaviour and, in this case, cooperation among people.

A virtual version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma was used in the study; the problem comes from game theory and is used as a model for studying human behaviour and, in this case, cooperation among people.

15/07/2014

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Young people between the ages of ten and sixteen demonstrate more fickle behaviour when it comes to cooperating, unlike other age groups. People over the age of 66 demonstrated the most cooperative behaviour. These are the conclusions of a research paper by scientists from the University of Barcelona (UB), the Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) and the University of Zaragoza (UNIZAR), published in the journal Nature Communications.

The new research paper, which reports on one of the first experimental studies in the world to analyse how cooperative attitudes evolve in different age ranges, was written by Josep Perelló and Mario Gutiérrez Roig, professors from the OpenSystems Research Group of the Department of Fundamental Physics at UB; Anxo Sánchez, from the Complex Systems Interdisciplinary Group (GISC) of the Department of Mathematics at UC3M, and Carlos Gracia Lázaro and Yamir Moreno, researchers from the Complex Systems and Networks Group (COSNET Lab) of the Institute for Biocomputation and Physics of Complex Systems (BIFI) at UNIZAR.

 

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, to cooperate or not to cooperate

The experiment, which is presented as a game via a web interface developed by researchers at BIFI, was carried out using 168 subjects between 10 and 87 years of age who had been chosen at random during the DAU Barcelona Board Games Festival, which was held in Barcelona’s Fábrica de Creación Fabra i Coats in December 2012. The experiment was part of the Barcelona Lab platform, promoted by the Management of Creativity and Innovation of the Barcelona Institute of Culture (ICUB). The team installed a portable laboratory with a dozen computers and took volunteers from among Festival’s visitors until a statistically relevant number of subjects was reached. They repeated the experiment later in order to confirm the results, which were corroborated by 53 twelve and thirteen-year-old students from the school Col·legi Jesuïtes Casp in Barcelona. A virtual version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma was used in the study; the problem comes from game theory and is used as a model for studying human behaviour and, in this case, cooperation among people.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma plays a central role in this experiment, which continues the work done in previous studies by some of these researchers, because it is a way to “ask” people how cooperative they are. Participants were divided into groups of four people based on different age ranges. There was also a control group. During 25 consecutive rounds, they had to choose between cooperating and not cooperating, receiving different rewards for each action. Rewards for people who are interacting come when they collaborate; if one collaborates and the other doesn’t, the latter receives a greater reward than former, who collaborates; but if nobody collaborates, then nobody receives any reward. Participants had information regarding their opponents’ actions and the rewards received by each one. When rounds were finished, the total number of points obtained by each participant was transformed into money. They received it immediately (in the case of minors, their parents received it).

 
More unpredictable decisions by young people

The most remarkable results of the experiment show clearly differentiated behaviour in the youngest age range. “In general, people consider what others have done when they collaborate, but our experiments show that adults also consider their own previous actions; that is to say, there is a different strategy in the way they act and there is a tendency to end up cooperating; the way they act is more predictable and it helps a bit in keeping up the cooperation”, explains Yamir Moreno. However, the behaviour of the youngest participants does not follow this pattern. “According to our study, kids are more volatile in their decisions; they don’t follow a definite strategy, and they are essentially conditional cooperators, because they pay more attention to those around them. Kids’ tendency is to watch what other players are doing and react according to their response, instead of being conditioned by their own past actions. This makes difficult to generate a cooperative environment”, explains Mario Gutiérrez Roig.

On the opposite side, there is another peculiarity in the results: “Those who are over 65 seem to be more cooperative than those in other age groups, although in this case we don’t have a great deal of statistical information and we would have to test it further”, points out Anxo Sánchez. This suggests, as a previous study indicated, that “lowering the retirement age may not be beneficial for companies and it might be interesting to find ways to keep this group working or in an alternate situation where they can continue to be cooperative,” indicates Sánchez.

In the second experiment —carried out with students from the school Col·legi Jesuïtes Casp to corroborate the results conclusions were the same. “These kids were more cooperative, but their behaviour remained equally unpredictable”, recalls Carlos Gracia Lázaro. “These results lead us to think that there is an evolutionary and cultural component throughout the life cycle, and that being prone to cooperate is a quality that can be learned,” emphasizes Gracia Lázaro.

Results also hold implications with regard to strategies that can be used to foment collaboration among this age group. “It would be necessary to develop specific strategies, different from those used with adults, to promote the transition toward more persistent pro-social conduct and to help kids understand the need for a level of perseverance. Applying this to the area of education, for example, this could be translated into establishing clearer rules in group projects to facilitate students’ coming to agreements that would be beneficial for everyone”, explains Josep Perelló.

In previous experiments it had already been observed that children between 6 and 10 years of age develop a sense of cooperation; this study pinpoints the moment in which this changes: adolescence. “The causes are not clear, but we think that what may happen is that in earlier phases they begin to develop a ‘theory of the other’, as the psychologists call it, which allows them to empathize and be altruistic; however, as they get older they could have a phase in which they believe that understanding the other puts them in a position to take advantage of him,” explains Anxo Sánchez. “The idea is a bit intuitive, so it would be necessary to perform further experiments to clarify the causes of this change”, specifies Yamir Moreno.

 
A unique space to do experiments on human behaviour

The study, carried out in such a unique space as DAU, is the result of a collaboration agreement between the research team and ICUB, emerged from the creation of the Barcelona Lab and the Citizen Science Group. Thus, thanks to the collaboration of OpenSystems, COSNET Lab and GISC groups, it has been possible to obtain a more representative sample than the one that is habitually used in behavioural studies. Researcher Josep Perelló explains: “This kind of studies normally use samples made up of students of Social Sciences and Economics; so participants are people characterised by a particular university level education and a certain economic level”. “Furthermore ―the expert continues―, they could even be influenced by the very economic theories they learn in class. Our sample is more diverse in terms of age and socio-educational level; that makes our conclusions more general. The idea is that DAU Barcelona (directed by Oriol Comas and organized by ICUB) can also be an experimental space where it would be possible to do studies on human behaviour through games with and for society”, notes Perelló. The idea is to facilitate experimental laboratory activities where public’s participation is important. “This scientific article is the first relevant result that has come out of this collaboration”, affirms Perelló. “Studies such as this one allow the public to participate in scientific studies from the very beginning and they also help to explain how science works and show the different phases of the scientific method,” concludes Mario Gutiérrez Roig. 

 
Further information

Mario Gutiérrez Roig, Carlos Gracia Lázaro, Josep Perelló, Yamir Moreno, Ángel Sánchez. “Transition from reciprocal cooperation to persistent behavior in social dilemmas at the end of adolescence”. Nature Communications, July 2014.

 
Photos: Josep Perelló (UB), Anxo Sánchez (UC3M), i Institut de Cultura de Barcelona (ICUB).
 
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