Oct. 21, 2009

Conference on cooperation, cheating, group decision-making yields insights

Better understanding of honeybee interactions could have implications for understanding why people act selfishly in a communal system, said Cornell Professor Kern Reeve, one of the presenters at the conference "Cooperation: Self Interest and Mutual Interest," held at Cornell Oct. 16.

The conference, organized by Cornell, SUNY Buffalo and SUNY Binghamton with funding from the SUNY Conversations in the Disciplines Program, brought together almost 100 researchers to examine issues relating to cooperation that are common to the fields represented, which ranged from evolutionary biology, ecology and plant science to molecular biology, anthropology, psychology, economics and even English, said conference organizer Angela Douglas, professor of entomology. The meeting attracted colleagues from across the SUNY universities and beyond, including California and Germany.

"The individual is not enough," said Douglas. "Different disciplines are independently discovering that the traits of individuals can only be explained fully and predicted accurately in the context of their membership of a cooperative group. The increasing recognition of the importance of cooperation brings many problems into focus: How can the self-interest of the individual be compatible with the needs of the group? How are group members chosen and how is their behavior monitored and possibly controlled? How are group decisions made, and how do these decisions differ from decisions made by individuals?"

After consulting with colleagues by e-mail, Douglas structured the meeting "around four topics that are hotly debated and pose unresolved problems for all of the different disciplines," she said. Three of the topics -- cheats and policing, how group decisions are made and how group members are chosen -- focused on individual members of the group; the fourth topic addressed the bigger picture of cooperative communities.

For example, Reeve, a professor of neurobiology and behavior, presented his game theory model of honeybee interaction in the session on cheats and policing, which analyzed how group members detect and respond to cheating. He said his model predicts how much energy worker bees devote to finding resources for themselves -- selfish behavior, versus how much energy they devote to redirecting resources away from others and toward the queen -- policing behavior. Worker bees tend to police each other for the benefit of the queen, he said, and the most successful beehives have low levels of both behaviors, because these behaviors use up colony resources.

"The lowest levels of selfishness and policing occur when workers are more related to the queen's sons than to other workers' sons," said Reeve. "This is because individual workers have an incentive to pass on their genes by assisting the queen's reproduction."

Reeve's model offers insights into how people use resources when they are pooled into a communal "fair pot," Reeve said. Humans, unlike honeybees, have no incentive to police for a third party. However, if policing causes resources to be directed into a "community pot" that then is fairly divided, then third-party policing effectively occurs, selfishness is greatly reduced, and the community will benefit, he said.

An extended report on the meeting, including a summary of the oral presentations and poster abstracts, is available at http://www.angeladouglaslab.com/news/story/cooperation-self-interest-and-mutual-interest-1.html.

Pelle Rudstam '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.