Chimpanzees and children avoid mutual defection in a social dilemma

Alex Sánchez-Amaro, Shona Duguid, Josep Call, Michael Tomasello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Cooperation often comes with the temptation to defect and benefit at the cost of others. This tension between cooperation and defection is best captured in social dilemmas like the Prisoner's Dilemma. Adult humans have specific strategies to maintain cooperation during Prisoner's Dilemma interactions. Yet, little is known about the ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins of human decision-making strategies in conflict scenarios. To shed light on this question, we compared the strategies used by chimpanzees and 5-year old children to overcome a social dilemma. In our task, waiting for the partner to act first produced the best results for the subject. Alternatively, they could mutually cooperate and divide the rewards. Our findings indicate that the two species differed substantially in their strategies to solve the task. Chimpanzees became more strategic across the study period by waiting longer to act in the social dilemma. Children developed a more efficient strategy of taking turns to reciprocate their rewards. Moreover, children used specific types of communication to coordinate with their partners. These results suggest that while both species behaved strategically to overcome a conflict situation, only children engaged in active cooperation to solve a social dilemma.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)46-54
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number1
Early online date4 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • Social dilemma
  • Prisoner's Dilemma
  • Cooperation
  • Coordination
  • Chimpanzees
  • Chidren


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