Learning to cooperate: The evolution of social rewards in repeated interactions

Erol Akcay, and Slimane Dridi


Understanding the behavioral and psychological mechanisms underlying social behaviors is one of the major goals of social evolutionary theory. In particular, a persistent question about animal cooperation is to what extent it is supported by other-regarding preferences—the motivation to increase the welfare of others. In many situations, animals adjust their behaviors through learning by responding to the rewards they experience as a consequence of their actions. Therefore, we may ask whether learning in social situations can be driven by evolved other-regarding rewards. Here we develop a mathematical model in order to ask whether the mere act of cooperating with a social partner will evolve to be inherently rewarding. Individuals interact repeatedly in pairs and adjust their behaviors through reinforcement learning. We assume that individuals associate with each game outcome an internal reward value. These perceived rewards are genetically evolving traits. We find that conditionally cooperative rewards that value mutual cooperation positively but the sucker’s outcome negatively tend to be evolutionarily stable. Purely other-regarding rewards can evolve only under special parameter combinations. On the other hand, selfish rewards that always lead to pure defection are also evolutionarily successful. These findings are consistent with empirical observations showing that humans tend to display conditionally cooperative behavior and also exhibit a diversity of preferences. Our model also demonstrates the need to further integrate multiple levels of biological causation of behavior.


Erol Akcay, and Slimane Dridi, Learning to cooperate: The evolution of social rewards in repeated interactions, Biorxiv, 2017.

See also

Published in

The American Naturalist, vol. 191, n. 1, January 2018