In this two year study, we will test explanatory models of human cooperative behavior by exploring the process by which a small community cooperates to complete a large communal construction project. Humans are capable of cooperating in large groups on a level that is rivaled only by the eusocial insects. Yet we achieve this feat without the need for unusually high relatedness or reproductive suppression. Researchers have long debated the selection pressures and individual motivations that might have allowed for such a remarkable capacity. Most of the studies exploring this topic have relied on laboratory methods, which are well controlled, but whose connection to real-world behavior (i.e., ecological and external validity) is questionable. There is therefore a need for research focused on naturally-occurring behavior. This has proven challenging, as naturally-occurring cooperative endeavors are often ephemeral, non-discrete, and have ever-changing membership. We aim to address this problem by initiating a substantial communal project, the construction of a school house, in a small-scale village in Nicaragua. During its construction, we will use standardized observation methods along with heart rate monitors to capture village members’ investments at an unprecedented level of precision. We will also incorporate experimental economic games, semi-structured and structured interviews, and participant to further explore hypotheses generated by different models. This approach balances the strengths of the two major approaches—the study will be both ecologically valid and well controlled.
We believe this project will produce a minimum of four to five peer-reviewed articles, which should have a considerable impact on the field. In addition to testing different models of cooperative behavior, we will also be able to test the external validity of economic experiments with a high level of precision, which is a separate, but related, research topic that is heavily debated.