Decompression

I’ve been quiet lately because I had to write my thesis then defend it. Now I’m being quiet because I’ve gone to bimble around Hanoi for a while in an attempt to decompress from PhD life.

We’re trying to publish some of my chapters so the actual thesis itself is embargoed at the moment (one chapter was published last year). But in case you are interested, here’s a summary written using only the ten hundred most common English words:

We think we know what people are like from how they act in rooms where brain-people in white jackets make them do things. But I want to check how people act in real life. I looked at how people work together in two places – one where they keep animals in the cold land at the top of the world and another place where they grow food around a body of water in a big big land. The people helped their friends, family and other close people. They liked good people and didn’t help bad people.

And here’s the official summary:

Humans live in cooperative groups of varying scales and composition, from families to nations and international communities. Segregating into groups can provide benefits by alleviating individual costs. However, individuals also face a dilemma between following their own interests and those of the group, which can lead to a breakdown in cooperation. The evolutionary benefits and costs of cooperation are well-understood theoretically, but the real-world dynamics of cooperative behaviour remain unclear. This thesis investigates cooperation in two populations, employing field experiments and social network methods grounded in a human behavioural ecology framework. Part I centres on Saami reindeer pastoralists, an indigenous minority who live and work in cooperative herding groups around northern Norway. I collected survey and experimental data, using gift games to test whether herders acted cooperatively towards genetic relatives or to their herding group, or both. I also played public goods games to understand how herders respond to and solve social dilemmas. Cooperative behaviours were biased towards the herding group, although kinship also had a positive effect on gift-giving. Smaller groups were more cooperative, although this pattern was not driven by relatedness. Part II analyses demographic and experimental data collected by others from a population of Mosuo farmers living in rural southwest China. The Mosuo are a minority whose social system traditionally revolved around matrilineal households but which is changing in response to increased tourism. The results show how affinal relationships encourage a real-word measure of cooperation: labouring on farms. Some Mosuo people were considered witches. I test whether witchcraft accusations act as a form of costless punishment, allowing people to withhold help from witches. Witches were somewhat isolated within their villages but clustered together and did not suffer significantly lowered reproductive success. These results underline the importance of studying cooperation in real-world groups in addition to laboratories.

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