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Gintis' perspective piece in Science reviews recent behavioral game theory research

New evidence suggests modern societies depend on a balance between selfishness and morality

Santa Fe Institute

Social scientists have debated for decades the causes and consequences of modernity. Modern democratic societies are associated with strong economic performance as well as numerous ills -- the decay of traditional family and ethnic ties, loss of community, inequality, and destruction of the environment.

In a Perspectives piece appearing in the March 7 issue of Science, SFI External Professor Herbert Gintis, (professor of economics at the Central European University), reviews recent behavioral game theory research by Herrmann, Thöni, and Gächter. Their paper, also appearing in the March 7 issue, strongly suggests that systematic differences across societies, specifically how individuals view themselves and unrelated others as allies and competitors, affect their capacity to cooperate effectively.

Using cooperative games, Herrmann et al. collected data in 15 countries with varying levels of economic development. They show that university students in democratic societies with advanced market economies rarely exercised a type of antisocial punishment featured in the game, while this behavior was commonly exercised by students in traditional societies based on authoritarian and parochial social institutions. The results suggest that the depiction of civil society as the sphere of naked self-interest is radically incorrect; rather, the success of democratic market societies may depend critically on individuals balancing self interest with morality.

"The authors' empirical results show that the advanced market societies with democratic institutions produce an ethic of spontaneous cooperation, with a strong altruistic dimension, that likely accounts at least in part for their material success and legitimacy, says Gintis. He adds that the results must be validated and extended before we firm conclusions can be drawn.


The Santa Fe Institute (SFI) is an acknowledged leader in multidisciplinary scientific research. Its objectives are to discover and understand the common fundamental principles in physical, computational, biological, and social complex systems that underlie many of the most profound issues facing science and society today. By transcending disciplines, breaking academic molds, and drawing together an international network of unorthodox creative thinkers, SFI is an independent non-profit research and education center supported by grants, charitable giving, and corporate relationships.

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