Focus |

Focus on Cooperation

Cooperation has been the key to success for many of Earth's species, from microbiota to humans. Despite the centrality of cooperation to so many liveways, there is still a great deal to be understood about its evolution and how and when it succeeds and fails. This collection pulls together content from the Nature Human Behaviour Focus issue on Cooperation - including insights from anthropology, evolutionary biology, human behavioural ecology, economics, neuroscience, psychology, ethology, and environmental studies - and from the archive of Nature Ecology & Evolution, to understand the state of knowledge on cooperation and highlight future research directions. 


Human beings are a social species that relies on cooperation to survive and thrive. Understanding how and why cooperation succeeds or fails is integral to solving the many global challenges we face.

Editorial | | Nature Human Behaviour


Global groundwater resources are threatened by over-extraction. An agent-based model is presented, incorporating cooperative and collective action theory that reveals tipping points in social attitudes toward conservation in three at-risk regions.

Letter | | Nature Human Behaviour

When given time to deliberate in an economic game, individuals become less cooperative. Grossmann and colleagues show that players directed toward a third-person perspective reorientate from selfish to common goals and maintain cooperation.

Letter | | Nature Human Behaviour

The evolutionary transition to cooperative breeding often involves high levels of monogamy and therefore indirect fitness benefits to helpers. Here, an alternative pathway is shown for cichlid fishes, involving direct fitness benefits derived from ecological factors such as group living.

Article | | Nature Ecology & Evolution

Reviews & Perspectives

Fehr and Schurtenberger show that the prevailing evidence supports the view that social norms are causal drivers of human cooperation and explain major cooperation-related regularities. Norms also guide peer punishment and people have strong preferences for institutions that support norm formation.

Review Article | | Nature Human Behaviour

Studying subtle signals of generosity is important to understand the long term maintenance of human cooperative networks. Certain types of low-cost food sharing among Martu women, for example, may signal commitment and cement cooperative ties.

Perspective | | Nature Human Behaviour

Hilbe et al. synthesize recent theoretical work on zero-determinant and ‘rival’ versus ‘partner’ strategies in social dilemmas. They describe the environments under which these contrasting selfish or cooperative strategies emerge in evolution.

Review Article | | Nature Human Behaviour

McAuliffe et al. synthesize recent behavioural and neuroscientific evidence on the development of fairness behaviours in children, which shows that the signatures of human fairness can be traced in childhood.

Review Article | | Nature Human Behaviour


Knowledge that humans could trigger a regime shift in a vital natural system may help in identifying a goal for collective action, but it is unlikely to spur the degree of cooperation needed to avert a catastrophe. Substantial behaviour change can be achieved by manipulating the institutions that govern human action on the commons.

Comment | | Nature Human Behaviour

Global environmental change is largely indifferent to political boundaries, but meeting the challenges they pose in the future will inevitably require cross-border cooperation. We talk to David Lehrer, Executive Director at The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, about how this challenge is at the heart of their academic mission.

Q&A | | Nature Ecology & Evolution

Some acts of human cooperation are not easily explained by traditional models of kinship or reciprocity. Fitness interdependence may provide a unifying conceptual framework, in which cooperation arises from the mutual dependence for survival or reproduction, as occurs among mates, risk-pooling partnerships and brothers-in-arms.

Comment | | Nature Human Behaviour

Through cooperation we are able to thrive, build societies, culture and technology. But history also reveals our potential for selfishness, spite and prejudice. Studying the neural processes that drive choice behaviour is essential to understand this paradox and develop means to curb greed and extend the limits of cooperation.

Comment | | Nature Human Behaviour

Many species face the problems of how, when and with whom to cooperate. Comparing responses across species can reveal the evolutionary trajectory of these decisions, including in humans. Using nearly identical economic game methods to compare species could identify the evolutionary constraints and catalysts to cooperation.

Comment | | Nature Human Behaviour

New details of the social and sex lives of platypodine ambrosia beetles support a controversial link between parental monogamy and complex animal societies.

News & Views | | Nature Ecology & Evolution