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      Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization


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          People often ignore material costs they incur when following existing social norms. Some individuals and groups are often willing to pay extremely high costs to enact, defend, or promulgate specific values and norms that they consider important. Such behaviors, often decreasing biological fitness, represent an evolutionary puzzle. We study theoretically the evolutionary origins of human capacity to internalize and follow social norms. We focus on two general types of collective actions our ancestors were regularly involved in: cooperation to overcome nature’s challenges and conflicts with neighboring groups. We show that norm internalization evolves under a wide range of conditions, making cooperation “instinctive.” We make testable predictions about individual and group behavior.


          Human behavior is strongly affected by culturally transmitted norms and values. Certain norms are internalized (i.e., acting according to a norm becomes an end in itself rather than merely a tool in achieving certain goals or avoiding social sanctions). Humans’ capacity to internalize norms likely evolved in our ancestors to simplify solving certain challenges—including social ones. Here we study theoretically the evolutionary origins of the capacity to internalize norms. In our models, individuals can choose to participate in collective actions as well as punish free riders. In making their decisions, individuals attempt to maximize a utility function in which normative values are initially irrelevant but play an increasingly important role if the ability to internalize norms emerges. Using agent-based simulations, we show that norm internalization evolves under a wide range of conditions so that cooperation becomes “instinctive.” Norm internalization evolves much more easily and has much larger effects on behavior if groups promote peer punishment of free riders. Promoting only participation in collective actions is not effective. Typically, intermediate levels of norm internalization are most frequent but there are also cases with relatively small frequencies of “oversocialized” individuals willing to make extreme sacrifices for their groups no matter material costs, as well as “undersocialized” individuals completely immune to social norms. Evolving the ability to internalize norms was likely a crucial step on the path to large-scale human cooperation.

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          Most cited references31

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          Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms

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            Evolutionarily singular strategies and the adaptive growth and branching of the evolutionary tree

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              Via freedom to coercion: the emergence of costly punishment.

              In human societies, cooperative behavior in joint enterprises is often enforced through institutions that impose sanctions on defectors. Many experiments on so-called public goods games have shown that in the absence of such institutions, individuals are willing to punish defectors, even at a cost to themselves. Theoretical models confirm that social norms prescribing the punishment of uncooperative behavior are stable-once established, they prevent dissident minorities from spreading. But how can such costly punishing behavior gain a foothold in the population? A surprisingly simple model shows that if individuals have the option to stand aside and abstain from the joint endeavor, this paves the way for the emergence and establishment of cooperative behavior based on the punishment of defectors. Paradoxically, the freedom to withdraw from the common enterprise leads to enforcement of social norms. Joint enterprises that are compulsory rather than voluntary are less likely to lead to cooperation.

                Author and article information

                Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A
                Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A
                Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
                National Academy of Sciences
                6 June 2017
                22 May 2017
                22 May 2017
                : 114
                : 23
                : 6068-6073
                [1] aDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee , Knoxville, TN 37996;
                [2] bDepartment of Mathematics, University of Tennessee , Knoxville, TN 37996;
                [3] cNational Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, University of Tennessee , Knoxville, TN 37996;
                [4] dDepartment of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California , Davis, CA 95616
                Author notes
                1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: gavrila@ 123456tiem.utk.edu .

                Edited by Simon A. Levin, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved May 4, 2017 (received for review March 7, 2017)

                Author contributions: S.G. and P.J.R. designed research; S.G. performed research; S.G. contributed new reagents/analytic tools; S.G. and P.J.R. analyzed data; and S.G. and P.J.R. wrote the paper.

                PMC5468620 PMC5468620 5468620 201703857

                Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.

                Page count
                Pages: 6
                Funded by: US Army Research Office
                Award ID: W911NF-14-1-0637
                Funded by: NSF | BIO | Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) 100000155
                Award ID: EF-0830858
                Biological Sciences
                Social Sciences

                values, evolution, modeling, conflict, cooperation


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