Small groups and long memories promote cooperation

Alexander J Stewart, Joshua B Plotkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Citations (Scopus)
1 Downloads (Pure)


Complex social behaviors lie at the heart of many of the challenges facing evolutionary biology, sociology, economics, and beyond. For evolutionary biologists the question is often how group behaviors such as collective action, or decision making that accounts for memories of past experience, can emerge and persist in an evolving system. Evolutionary game theory provides a framework for formalizing these questions and admitting them to rigorous study. Here we develop such a framework to study the evolution of sustained collective action in multi-player public-goods games, in which players have arbitrarily long memories of prior rounds of play and can react to their experience in an arbitrary way. We construct a coordinate system for memory-m strategies in iterated n-player games that permits us to characterize all cooperative strategies that resist invasion by any mutant strategy, and stabilize cooperative behavior. We show that, especially when groups are small, longer-memory strategies make cooperation easier to evolve, by increasing the number of ways to stabilize cooperation. We also explore the co-evolution of behavior and memory. We find that even when memory has a cost, longer-memory strategies often evolve, which in turn drives the evolution of cooperation, even when the benefits for cooperation are low.

Original languageEnglish
Article number26889
Number of pages11
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Decision Making/physiology
  • Game Theory
  • Games, Experimental
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Memory/physiology
  • Models, Psychological
  • Models, Statistical
  • Sociobiology


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