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What do geopolitical conflict, collective bargaining, and team collaboration have in common? All three illustrate the ubiquitousness of cooperation in human social life. The central goal of my research program is to understand the social cognitive abilities that allow our species to cooperate so successfully. To do this, I conduct behavioral experiments with adults and children to better understand how these social-cognitive processes emerge in ontogeny and come to underlie cooperative behavior. Below I detail my the three main areas of my research program.
Social norms play an essential role in human social behavior and are especially important for sustaining cooperative behavior. In my most recent line of work, I investigate the social cognitive processes–particularly those for representing other agents' beliefs–that underlie social norm cognition. Namely, I have investigated how descriptive norm information about how common a behavior influences our injunctive norm beliefs about what other people approve of and how that in turn influences our own behavior. I find that people readily update their beliefs and behavior after receiving descriptive norm information that a behavior is relatively common or uncommon and that the extent to which we do so varies substantially depending on the kind of behavior (Deutchman et al., in prep) For instance, after receiving descriptive norm information people update more for fairness behaviors such as cheating on a test as compared to harm behaviors such stealing from a tip jar. I’ve also shown that this relationship is early emerging: by 6 years of age children selectively infer injunctive and moral information from descriptive norms depending on the type normative behavior, suggesting this is a foundational part of social cognition (Deutchman et al., in prep). In ongoing work, I’m exploring whether, like adults, children update their own beliefs after receiving descriptive norm information and how the source of a norm (e.g., from a peer or adult) and its content (e.g., prosocial or antisocial) interact to influence children’s norm learning and how that changes across development.
RECURSIVE MENTALIZING & COORDINATION
Every day we coordinate our behavior with others, whether it’s deciding which side of the road to drive, organizing a protest, or hitting a fundraising goal. Coordination is an important domain of cooperative behavior in which agents’ self-interest coincide. Despite this, we know relatively little about the cognitive abilities that allow us to coordinate with others. My work has investigated one important ability for coordination–common knowledge–a heuristic for representing recursive mental states, extending our understanding of this ability. In my work on the threshold public goods game (TPGG)–a economic game where agents need to reach a minimum level of contributions to unlock the benefits of cooperation–I find that common knowledge of the threshold increases cooperative behavior by decreasing uncertainty that others will also contribute (Deutchman et al., 2022, Evolution & Human Behavior). I’ve also examined when this ability emerges in development, finding that by 6 years of age, children are able to use common knowledge to coordinate, highlighting the foundational role of common knowledge in human cooperation (Deutchman et al., 2022, Developmental Psychology).
MOTIVATIONS OF PUNISHMENT
My research also explores an important tool for maintaining cooperation: punishment. In one project investigating the motivations that underlie punishment, we find that punishment is strongly motivated by revenge–the desire to reciprocate losses–and weakly motivated by inequity aversion–the dislike of unfairness (Deutchman et al., 2021, Evolution & Human Behavior). To better understand the unique inputs of human punishment, I have explored whether cleaner fish (Labroides dimidiatus) are similarly sensitive to their partner's intent when they transgress. This work finds that unlike humans, cleaner fish show no evidence of sensitivity to intent when punishing, highlighting the unique role it serves in human punishment (Deutchman et al., under review). In current work, I’m investigating how we view people who punish others and how our beliefs about their intentions and motivations shape our evaluations of their actions (Deutchman et al., in prep). Lastly, I’m also exploring whether, like adults, children engage in third party punishment as a signal of their trustworthiness and cooperative intent. The findings from this work will inform our understanding of why we intervene as uninvolved third-parties and when we’re likely to do so.
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