Economic games and social neuroscience methods can help elucidate the psychology of parochial altruism


The success of Homo sapiens can in large part be attributed to their highly social nature, and particularly their ability to live and work together in extended social groups. Throughout history, humans have undergone sacrifices to both advance and defend the interests of fellow group members against non-group members. Intrigued by this, researchers from multiple disciplines have attempted to explain the psychological origins and processes of parochial altruism: the well-documented tendency for increased cooperation and prosocial behavior within the boundaries of a group (akin to ingroup love, and ingroup favoritism), and second, the propensity to reject, derogate, and even harm outgroup members (akin to “outgroup hate,” e.g., Tajfel and Turner, 1979; Brewer, 1999; Hewstone et al., 2002; Choi and Bowles, 2007; De Dreu et al., 2014; Rusch, 2014). Befitting its centrality to a wide range of human social endeavors, parochial altruism is manifested in a large variety of contexts that may differ psychologically. Sometimes, group members help others to achieve a positive outcome (e.g., gain money); and sometimes group members help others avoid a negative outcome (e.g., avoid being robbed). Sometimes, group members conflict over a new resource (e.g., status; money; land) that is currently “unclaimed”; and sometimes they conflict over a resource that is already held by one group. In this paper, we take stock of exciting new directions and methods in the psychological study of parochial altruism. We argue that to enrich our understanding of the psychological processes underlying parochial altruism, researchers could (continue to) incorporate methods and insights developed and popularized in adjacent disciplines, such as behavioral economics and social neuroscience. First, we highlight how the discipline of behavioral economics and its associated methodology of economic games can enrich our psychological understanding of parochial altruism through exploring the manifestation of, and psychological mechanisms driving, parochial altruism in both gains and losses contexts. Second, we consider the social neuroscientific approach, highlighting how research into neuromodulators has advanced our understanding of parochial altruism by outlining differential influences of the neuromodulators testosterone and oxytocin on ingroup cooperation and outgroup discrimination. Given that parochial altruism is at root an interdisciplinary phenomenon, it would be a pity if each discipline that studies it does so from and within its own silo. With greater incorporation of these new directions in parochial altruism, scientists can enrich their understanding as to when, why, and how people help members of their own group more than other groups, and even harm members of other groups.

Frontiers in Psychology

Full citation

Everett, J.A.C., Faber, N.S., Crockett, M., & De Dreu, C.K.W. (2015). Economic games and social neuroscience methods can help elucidate the psychology of parochial altruism. Frontiers in Psychology - Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience (6). DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00861