Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Societal background influences social learning in cooperative decision making

Molleman, Lucas; Gaechter, Simon


Lucas Molleman

Professor, Psychology of Economic Decision Making


Humans owe their ecological success to their great capacities for social learning and cooperation: learning from others helps individuals adjust to their environment and can promote cooperation in groups. Classic and recent studies indicate that the cultural organization of societies shapes the influence of social information on decision making and suggest that collectivist values (prioritizing the group relative to the individual) increase tendencies to conform to the majority. However, it is unknown whether and how societal background impacts social learning in cooperative interactions. Here we show that social learning in cooperative decision making systematically varies across two societies. We experimentally compare people's basic propensities for social learning in samples from a collectivist (China) and an individualist society (United Kingdom; total n = 540) in a social dilemma and a coordination game. We demonstrate that Chinese participants base their cooperation decisions on information about their peers much more frequently than their British counterparts. Moreover, our results reveal remarkable societal differences in the type of peer information people consider. In contrast to the consensus view, Chinese participants tend to be substantially less majority-oriented than the British. While Chinese participants are inclined to adopt peer behavior that leads to higher payoffs, British participants tend to cooperate only if sufficiently many peers do so too. These results indicate that the basic processes underlying social transmission are not universal; rather, they vary with cultural conditions. As success-based learning is associated with selfish behavior and majority-based learning can help foster cooperation, our study suggests that in different societies social learning can play diverging roles in the emergence and maintenance of cooperation.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Sep 30, 2018
Journal Evolution and Human Behavior
Print ISSN 1090-5138
Electronic ISSN 1090-5138
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 39
Issue 5
APA6 Citation Molleman, L., & Gaechter, S. (2018). Societal background influences social learning in cooperative decision making. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39(5),
Keywords Cooperation; Cultural evolution; Conformity; Collectivism; Human decision-making
Publisher URL
Copyright Statement Copyright information regarding this work can be found at the following address:


Societal 1-s2.0-S1090513817303501-main.pdf (1.3 Mb)

Copyright Statement
Copyright information regarding this work can be found at the following address:

You might also like

Downloadable Citations