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The value of a good reputation — It pays to be a good sport

Animals waiting to be shorn. Image Henry Lyle

Animals waiting to be shorn. Image Henry Lyle

Instead of finishing last, nice guys actually come out on top. Earning a reputation as a cooperative, hard worker pays off in community support, which can in turn lead to healthier families, report anthropologists in a recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For decades scientists have wondered how cooperation is maintained within a group. Judged by standard evolutionary and economic models, an individual has the most to gain by free riding–benefiting from the cooperation of others but giving nothing in return. But when free-riding spreads this behavior soon causes a cooperative system to unravel.

In the Nuñoa District of southeastern Peru there is a small collective of 24 Quechua households. This group of indigenous families jointly owns herds, gardens, irrigation canals and buildings. Life in the mountains is hard for these people. Their livelihood depends, in large part, upon group-owned resources. Maintaining the resources often requires significant time, energy and expertise.

Anthropologist Henry Lyle was surprised when he learned that in this system lazy workers, or “low contributors,” received the same benefits as the hard-working, “high contributors.” He expected low contributors would receive, for instance, fewer potatoes from the community garden. However, says Lyle, this wasn’t the case:

“At this point I knew that high contributors must be gaining some benefit to offset the costs of their hard work and make them more tolerant of free riding.

“Here was a small group of folks who put a lot more effort into maintaining the communally-owned resources,” he says. “They were always present for work on these resources and worked harder during these tasks. They had a sense of camaraderie that wasn’t as strong among other community members. Clearly, they took care of one another.”

Lyle and his colleague Eric Smith found that community members who contributed the most time, energy and risk into group projects gained valuable reputations as reliable, hard workers. They were known as the most generous, influential and respected people in the community. But the benefits of a good reputation may extend beyond the merely social. High contributors attracted large social support networks and this aid, in turn, is associated with healthier families. The researchers think this link is causal, though it cannot be conclusively proven.

“My guess is that agricultural support access is positively correlated with production,” Lyle says. “So, the idea is that those who have larger agricultural support networks can better feed their families and, as a result, have healthier families.”

Some critics may contend that sicker families simply have less time and energy to contribute to community projects. But the author’s present several lines of evidence that this isn’t so. Morbidity and time invested in group tasks were not correlated. And after controlling for morbidity in a model, they still find investment in group tasks can predict a person’s reputation.

Other societies maintain cooperation by punishing free-riders. In Nuñoa the free riders themselves get a free pass. The value of a good reputation is enough, in seems, to encourage people to work hard.

Categories: Anthropology and tagged
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