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The Psychological Origins of Trust-Based Cooperation

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ORIGINSOFTRUST (The Psychological Origins of Trust-Based Cooperation)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-03-31

People engage in cooperation on a daily basis. However, doing so is inherently risky since by participating we make ourselves dependent on the contributions of other people. A key psychological tool for cooperative partners to manage these risks is to build up trust. To date, little is known about developmental emergence of trust-based cooperation humans. To fill this gap, I conducted behavioral experiments with young children and, to a lesser degree, chimpanzees – human’s closest evolutionary relative – to shed light on the cognitive building blocks required for trust-based cooperation, the decision-making processes involved, as well as the role children’s social environment plays in its emergence. The project consisted of six objectives: The origins of trust in children (Objective 1) and chimpanzees (Objective 2), the role of group membership in children’s trust (Objective 3), trust responsiveness (Objective 4), choosing trustworthy partners (Objective 5), and ecologically rational decision-making in children (Objective 6). The results suggest that trust in others’ cooperative proclivities is an early emerging tendency which children apply broadly to other people, including strangers and outgroup members. Concurrently, however, we identified early developmental changes: At age 6 (but not age 4), children show clear signs of trust responsiveness such that they act prosocially towards individuals who had previously trusted them. By age 6, children also flexibly adapt who they trust to be good cooperative partners depending on others’ skills and the cooperative task demands. Finally, the results indicate that we share important trust-related cognitive building blocks with chimpanzees, suggesting that trust-based cooperation may have deep phylogenetic roots. These findings contribute to our understanding by what mechanisms individuals overcome the social risks inherent in cooperative activities and thus have the potential to help further cooperation in society.
The project consisted of six objectives. Objective 1a examined the link between children’s social environment and their tendency to trust peers. We found that 5-10-year-olds who believed rule violations to be common in their social environment were less likely to expect a peer to have shared a resource.
In Objective 1b, we devised a cognitive test-battery encompassing capacities theoretically deemed relevant for making adequate trust decisions (delay of gratification, future planning, risk evaluation, and theory of mind). We measure whether children’s performance is related to their choices in a trust game. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this study was transformed into an online experiment which will provide first insights into the cognitive capacities that promote trust-based cooperation in children.
Objective 2 explores the cognitive basis of trust-based cooperation in chimpanzees and is analogous to Objective 1b. The cognitive test battery revealed that, contrary to previous research characterizing chimpanzees as risk-seeking, chimpanzees tend to be risk-averse when facing the possibility of getting nothing, a finding we recently published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. A second paper on the relationship between chimpanzees’ delay discounting and their risk preferences is currently under preparation. The implementation of the trust task was planned for spring 2020 but had to be rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Objective 3 explored whether group membership children’s trust in others’ willingness to reciprocate an investment (assessed using the Investment Game, Objective 3a) and their trust in others’ generosity (assessed using the Faith Game, Objective 3b). In both studies, children assigned to novel and otherwise arbitrary groups demonstrated general preferences for ingroup members on several attitudinal measures. However, group membership did not influence their decisions about economic trust. Instead, children showed high levels of trust in the cooperativeness of both ingroup and outgroup members. A manuscript reporting these results is currently under consideration at a peer-reviewed journal.
Objective 4 examined if and from what age children show trust responsiveness – the tendency reciprocate others’ trust. A first study revealed that 6- but not 4-year-olds preferentially share resources with social partners who had previously trusted them (compared to neutral partners), providing first evidence for trust responsiveness in children. A manuscript summarizing the results of Objective 4a is currently under preparation.
Objective 5 investigated who young children trust to be good cooperative partners in different cooperative contexts. In an online study, 4-7-year-olds could recruit partners for a number of tasks which varied in terms of the skills required to be successful. By age 6 to 7 (but not earlier), children showed flexibility with regards to who they trust to be good cooperative partners depending on their skills and the cooperative task demands – a finding that adds to our understanding of how children trust and pick social partners.
The goal of Objective 6 was to put forth a theoretical framework guiding the study of the ecologically rational heuristics, that is, simple decision rules which owe their effectiveness to a close match between an individual’s cognitive architecture and her social environment. A strong focus is placed on social heuristics about whom to trust and to learn information from. This objective is a collaborative effort of decision scientists and developmental psychologists and consisted of workshops, discussion groups, and presentations. The results are currently drafted for publication.
In addition to the mentioned publications, I have disseminated the action’s objectives and results in conference presentations and several invited talks at European and US universities. I have further communicated the current research to the general public in a number of outreach events, most notably the University of Michigan’s Living Lab Program.
The project has furthered our understanding of the developmental and evolutionary origins of trust-based cooperation as well as its social and cognitive foundations. By illuminating which cognitive skills need to be in place for trust-based cooperation to emerge and the role of children’s social environment, the current project also has the potential to inform efforts aimed to stimulate the generation of trust and to facilitate cooperation in society. Several findings have already been published or are under consideration in peer-reviewed journals. Other projects are still finalized and prepared for publication. Moreover, the current project has generated novel and innovative experimental methodologies appropriate for the study of young children (e.g. child-friendly versions of the Investment Game and the Faith Game, a new measure of perceived rule violations, and a novel paradigm to study children’s partner choice) that are likely to influence developmental trust research in the years to come. Finally, chimpanzees are endangered in the wild. By revealing their complex cognitive skills and social behaviors, which often resemble those of humans, the current work serves to raise public awareness and concern for this remarkable species which, as a consequence, is hoped to assist much-needed conservation efforts.