Understanding the patterns and processes of human cooperation is of central scientific importance. Networks can promote cooperation when their existing or emergent topology allows conditional cooperators in the network to isolate themselves from exploitation by noncooperators. We do not know from prior work whether the emergent structures that promote cooperation are driven by reputation or can emerge purely via dynamics, i.e., the severing of ties to noncooperators and the formation of new ties irrespective of reputational information. Here we demonstrate, experimentally, that dynamic networks yield very high rates of cooperation even without reputational knowledge. Further, we identify realistic conditions under which static networks (where ties cannot be altered) yield cooperation rates as high as those in dynamic networks.Abstract
Humans’ propensity to cooperate is driven by our embeddedness in social networks. A key mechanism through which networks promote cooperation is clustering. Within clusters, conditional cooperators are insulated from exploitation by noncooperators, allowing them to reap the benefits of cooperation. Dynamic networks, where ties can be shed and new ties formed, allow for the endogenous emergence of clusters of cooperators. Although past work suggests that either reputation processes or network dynamics can increase clustering and cooperation, existing work on network dynamics conflates reputations and dynamics. Here we report results from a large-scale experiment (total n = 2,675) that embedded participants in clustered or random networks that were static or dynamic, with varying levels of reputational information. Results show that initial network clustering predicts cooperation in static networks, but not in dynamic ones. Further, our experiment shows that while reputations are important for partner choice, cooperation levels are driven purely by dynamics. Supplemental conditions confirmed this lack of a reputation effect. Importantly, we find that when participants make individual choices to cooperate or defect with each partner, as opposed to a single decision that applies to all partners (as is standard in the literature on cooperation in networks), cooperation rates in static networks are as high as cooperation rates in dynamic networks. This finding highlights the importance of structured relations for sustained cooperation, and shows how giving experimental participants more realistic choices has important consequences for whether dynamic networks promote higher levels of cooperation than static networks.