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Cooperation among strangers: experiments with social norms, institutions, and money

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Origins of cooperation, civicness and the institution of monetary exchange

An EU study investigated the evolution of cooperation among strangers. One approach used Italy as a case study and explained cooperative differences between populations, while another uncovered the role of money in promoting cooperative play.

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Humans spent the vast bulk of their evolutionary history living in small bands, where survival depended on cooperation and reciprocal assistance. Natural selection clearly favoured such a mode, yet it is more difficult to understand the evolution of cooperation among large numbers of strangers. The EU-funded STRANGERS (Cooperation among strangers: Experiments with social norms, institutions, and money) project investigated the roles of cultural, institutional and economic factors in promoting cooperation. One line of research studied the origin of differences between northern and southern Italian regions as regards in civicness while the other approach uncovered the role of money in social exchanges. Traditional explanations of the Italian north-south divide focus on the local differences in incentives, and the ways individuals respond differently to similar payoffs. Instead, project results point toward an undeniable role played by social norms and values. Such a conclusion relies on the observation that northerners are more cooperative when facing identical opportunities. Hence, balancing the structure of incentives across regions would not completely eliminate the north-south divide, since a major source is slow-changing cultural differences. In addition, the STRANGERS project findings ruled out contrasts in cooperative ability being related to risk tolerance, altruism, proxies of social capital or 'amoral familism'. The team advanced their knowledge of the role of money in promoting cooperation by uncovering behavioural reasons for the existence of money. Voluntary cooperation in large societies of strangers is difficult due to a frequent lack of trust. Money acts as a substitute way of building trust, whereby cooperation given today leads to reciprocal giving later. Once a convention of money exchange had become established, it replaces norms of gift exchange. Money crowds out simple norms of reciprocity. The STRANGERS project helped illustrate the origins of money as a social institution and alternative to voluntary cooperation. The work has shed light on broader aspects of social capital and preventing organisational conflict.


Cooperation, money, strangers, trust, social norms, civicness

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