The Strategy of Affect: Emotions in Human Cooperation

Summary of: The Strategy of Affect: Emotions in Human Cooperation

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Emotions appear to be a key regulator of behavior in cooperative relationships. Emotions affect behavior both directly, by motivating action, and indirectly, as actors anticipate others' emotional responses.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation (Dahlem Workshop Report), The MIT Press / Dahlem University Press


  • Emotions furnish the most important reason why humans don't make decisions as rational actors who seek only to maximize our individual well-being.
  • Evidence indicates that besides being the subject of sonnets and the blues, emotions are a way of thinking, a non-logical but nonetheless computational system that co-evolved with the increasing sophistication of human group formation.
  • Emotions furnish a non-rational instrument for social behaviors such as bonding, trusting, judging, and monitoring that enable people to break out of the Prisoner's Dilemma and find ways to cooperate on mutual enterprises.
  • Models of cooperation based on strictly rational game-theoretic algorithms will always be incomplete until they take into account the non-rational but nevertheless instrumental role of emotion.
  • The power of emotions can be leveraged to get group members to contribute to collective self-management of resources.

The authors distinguish between emotions that operate primarily in dyadic relationships and emotions that operate in a significant manner in collective contexts. The authors examine the evolutionary role each emotion and cite research about ways these emotions might contribute to the creation and maintenance of cooperative behaviors: "This chapter is premised on the claim that human cooperation is profoundly shaped by, and perhaps only possible because of, emotions. We will examine the manner in which different emotions shape behavior in cooperative contexts…Although framed within an evolutionary psychological perspective, our goal is not to present definitive evidence of the validity of this particular approach, but rather to spur future investigations of the role of emotions in cooperation. Toward that end, on an emotion-by-emotion basis we will both briefly describe a variety of existing findings and present a number of hypotheses, specifying discrete, testable predictions whenever possible."

Emotions that are primarily dyadic include romantic love, gratitude, anger, envy, jealousy, guilt righteousness and contempt. Romantic love is seen as a means of overcoming a barrier to the kind of cooperation we see in parenting -– the temptation to defect in the short term on a relationship that requires a long-term investment. "A number of investigators have suggested that some emotions can be understood as mechanisms design to commit people to behavior that yields long-term payoffs, thus overcoming the temptation for short-term defection. Romantic love, a universal human emotion that underpins pair bonding, appears to be such a mechanism."

Where romantic love is about how one feels about another person, gratitude addresses how one feels about somebody's behavior, and can be an emotional currency that binds one to reciprocity. "Gratitude focuses both attention and a positive, affiliative orientation on a party who has supplied the actor with a substantial benefit. In the context of its initial elicitation, gratitude seems to prompt the actor to recognize a valuable interaction partner and subsequently signal a willingness to reciprocate."

Why do people get so angry when someone cuts ahead of them in a queue or in traffic? This is clue to the evolutionary advantage of anger as a means of protecting ones own interests, but when it comes to the thus-far unexplained human propensity to punish cheaters, even at a cost to themselves, anger might be instrumental in conferring advantage to a group that requires monitoring and sanction of free riders in order to maintain a public good or create an institution for collective action: "If gratitude is elicited by receipt of a benefit, its opposite is anger, elicited by actual ar attempted exploitation or harm. More formally, anger is the response to the infliction of a cost. In addition to showing an "irrational" willingness to reward generosity, subjects in behavioral economics experiments also show an eagerness to punish uncooperative partners…Together, these results clearly demonstrate that even within the confines of finite anonymous games, angry individuals often place paramount importance on harming the transgressor, and are willing to incur substantial costs in order to do so."