Collaborative Research: Testing Models of Cooperation in a Large-scale Communal Project Grant uri icon


  • Human cooperation is extensive, despite constant risks of freeriding by individuals who stand to benefit from cooperation without paying associated costs. This study aims to understand the factors motivating large-scale cooperation by testing evolutionary, economic, and game-theoretic explanatory models of cooperative behavior. Whereas prior research has often relied on experimental approaches to testing hypotheses, this study brings the lab to the field, leveraging the explanatory power of experiments in a real-world context. The researchers will provide a small community with the resources necessary to construct a school building. The in situ behavioral experiment will measure individual contributions to the project and analyze how such contributions associate with decisions made under laboratory conditions and with community-wide reputations for cooperating. Furthermore, a postdoctoral scholar will gain important STEM research experience. The study will test the Indirect Reciprocity Model (IRM) of cooperation, which suggests that individuals earn reputations for their prosocial acts, that these reputations are widely known, and that they are used by potential cooperators to determine how to interact, preventing freeloading by less prosocial individuals. The research extends pairwise cooperation models of IRM to ask whether the model also explains contributions to public goods in real-world settings. In order to examine the impact of reputation management on collective action outside the laboratory, investigators will provide all of the materials needed for the construction of a school and observe the process from the planning phase to its completion. During the construction, the investigators will capture individual contributions to the project using direct observation, individual reports, and estimates of energy expenditure based on heart rate measurements. The investigators will also conduct semi-structured interviews about the construction process, as well as structured dyadic exchange interviews, reputational peer rankings, and experimental economic games. These methods will allow them to ethnographically capture the process by which a community completes a large-scale cooperative project and to test whether 1) reputations for collective action accurately capture variation in contributions to the project, 2) project contributions, in turn, influence reputations, 3) whether and how reputations influence dyadic interactions in day-to-day life, and 4) how decisions in economic experiments reflect patterns in real world situations. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

date/time interval

  • 2020 - 2023