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The Psychological Origins of Trust-Based Cooperation

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ORIGINSOFTRUST (The Psychological Origins of Trust-Based Cooperation)

Reporting period: 2018-04-01 to 2020-03-31

Cooperation is essential for human societies. However, while people engage in cooperation on a daily basis, 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, surprisingly little is known about developmental emergence of trust-based cooperation in young children, its cognitive underpinnings, or its evolutionary roots. The current action aim to fill this gap. To this end, I conduct behavioral experiments with young children and, to a lesser degree, chimpanzees – human’s closest evolutionary relative. They are divided into four objectives: The origins of trust in children (Objective 1), the origins of trust in chimpanzees (Objective 2), the role of group membership in children’s trust (Objective 3), and trust responsiveness in children (Objective 4). Together, these objectives are aimed 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. Taken together, the action contributes to our understanding by what mechanisms individuals overcome the social risks inherent in cooperative activities and thus has the potential to help further cooperation in society.
The following experimental studies were conducted to investigate the origins of trust-based cooperation.

Objective 1a represents a first attempt at examining the potential link between children’s social environment and their tendency to trust peers. 5-10-year-old children were presented with a series of story vignettes either comprising a rule violation by the protagonist or not. Children were asked to indicate which scenarios they believed to be more likely. Children who believed everyday rule violations to be common were subsequently less likely to expect a peer to have shared a resource in a fair way (however, they were not more willing to incur a risk based on those expectations).
Objective 1b explores the cognitive basis of trust-based cooperation in young children (aged 4-6). For this purpose, a cognitive test-battery was devised which encompasses four capacities theoretically deemed relevant for making adequate trust decisions (delay of gratification, future planning, risk evaluation, and theory of mind). Children’s performance on these cognitive tests serves as predictors in a child-friendly version of the trust game used in behavioral economics. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, data collection had to be temporarily put on hold but will resume as soon as possible. This study will provide first insights into the cognitive capacities that promote trust-based cooperation in children.

Objective 2 is analogous to Objective 1b and explores the cognitive basis of trust-based cooperation in chimpanzees using a similar cognitive test battery and subsequent trust game. The cognitive test battery has yielded novel results regarding to chimpanzees’ risk preferences: contrary to previous research characterizing chimpanzees as risk-seeking, our findings suggest that chimpanzees tend to be risk-averse when facing the possibility of getting nothing (rather than a small but certain reward). The implementation of the trust task was planned for spring 2020 but had to be rescheduled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Once completed, the findings will broaden our understanding of the cognitive capacities facilitating trust-based cooperation in our closest evolutionary relatives and, in combination with Objective 1b, allow for important species comparisons of trust-based cooperation in humans and chimpanzees.

Objective 3 explored the role of group membership in children’s trust decisions. In two studies, children could decide whether to trust social partners who were in- or outgroup members. We found that both 4- and 6-year-old children generally displayed strong ingroup biases (e.g. they liked ingroup members more than outgroup members) but this did not affect their economic trust decisions (Objective 3a). In a second study, children expected ingroup members to be more likely to share resources than outgroup members, but again, children were equally willing to trust in- and outgroup members (Objective 3b). Together, these findings suggest that, in young children, trust-based cooperation in economic decision contexts can get off the ground both among ingroup and outgroup partners.

A critical aspect of trust-based cooperation is that individuals recognize and appropriately respond to other’s trust. Objective 4 investigates if and from what age children show “trust responsiveness” – the tendency prosocially 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 (Objective 4a). A second study is concerned with the motivational and affective consequences of being trusted and explores if children show greater cooperative commitments towards and invest more effort in favor of social partners who had previously trusted them compared to partners who had mistrusted them (Objective 4b). Data collection had to be interrupted due restrictions put in place to combat the COVID-19 outbreak but will continue as soon as possible.

The current results are currently written up for publication. In addition, I have disseminated the action’s objectives and results in conference presentations as well as several invited talks in Europe and the US. I have further disseminated the current research to the general public in a number of outreach events, most prominently the University of Michigan’s Living Lab Program which communicates science to the community.
The project has already furthered our collective 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 as well as the role of children’s social environment, the current project has the potential to inform efforts aimed to stimulate the generation of trust and to facilitate cooperation in society.
Until the end of the project, the current findings will be prepared for publication in journal articles while the ongoing studies will continue to yield novel results. 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 trust game, a measure of perceived rule violations) 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.