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The results of numerous economic games suggest that humans behave more cooperatively than would be expected if they were maximizing selfish interests. It has been argued that this is because individuals gain satisfaction from the success of others, and that such prosocial preferences require a novel evolutionary explanation. However, in previous games, imperfect behavior would automatically lead to an increase in cooperation, making it impossible to decouple any form of mistake or error from prosocial cooperative decisions. Here we empirically test between these alternatives by decoupling imperfect behavior from prosocial preferences in modified versions of the public goods game, in which individuals would maximize their selfish gain by completely (100%) cooperating. We found that, although this led to higher levels of cooperation, it did not lead to full cooperation, and individuals still perceived their group mates as competitors. This is inconsistent with either selfish or prosocial preferences, suggesting that the most parsimonious explanation is imperfect behavior triggered by psychological drives that can prevent both complete defection and complete cooperation. More generally, our results illustrate the caution that must be exercised when interpreting the evolutionary implications of economic experiments, especially the absolute level of cooperation in a particular treatment.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





10125 - 10130


Adolescent, Altruism, Biological Evolution, Competitive Behavior, Cooperative Behavior, Female, Game Theory, Games, Experimental, Humans, Male, Models, Economic, Models, Psychological, Social Behavior, Young Adult