The Neurobiology of Cooperation and Altruism

Posted: 27 Mar 2009 Last revised: 10 May 2009

See all articles by James K. Rilling

James K. Rilling

Emory University - Department of Anthropology


"There is no duty more indispensable than that of returning a kindness. All men distrust one forgetful of a benefit".

Although all primate species exhibit altruism towards genetic relatives, humans are exceptional in the extent to which we cooperate with non-relatives (Bowles and Gintis 2003; Boyd and Richerson 2006; Fehr and Fischbacher 2003; Nowak 2006; Ridley 1996). While there is some evidence that non-human primates cooperate with non-relatives through grooming and support in agonistic encounters (Seyfarth and Cheney 1984; Waal 1997), the number of documented cases is limited. On the other hand, cooperation among non-relatives is pervasive in human societies. One form of cooperation that humans excel at is reciprocal altruism, in which an individual provides something of value to a social partner with the expectation that the recipient will reciprocate in the future (Trivers 1971). Reciprocal altruism is pervasive in modern human social life, as evidenced by massive holiday gift exchanges and by the social debt we feel after having accepted a favor, as reflected in the commonly heard phrase, "I owe you one". Our penchant for reciprocity is also the very foundation of the division of labor upon which our economy is based.

Suggested Citation

Rilling, James K., The Neurobiology of Cooperation and Altruism. Context and the Evolution of Mechanisms for Solving Collective Action Problems Paper. Available at SSRN:

James K. Rilling (Contact Author)

Emory University - Department of Anthropology ( email )

201 Dowman Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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