Adaptive Motivations Drive Concern for Common Good Resources

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Humans universally demonstrate intrinsically motivated prosocial behavior towards kin, non-kin ingroup members, and strangers. However, humans struggle to extend the same prosocial behavior to more abstract concepts like future-others and non-human species. The Adaptive Motivation Hypothesis posits that humans evolved intrinsic motivations to act prosocially towards more tangible social partners like those within an individual’s ingroup, but prosocial behavior towards more distant and abstract partners is constrained by ecological certainty. Prosocial behavior towards these more abstract concepts is more variable and more likely motivated by extrinsic reward. This dissertation aims to examine the development of motivations for prosocial behavior towards these more abstract concepts. My studies rely on common goods games as a proxy for examining behavior towards abstract recipients of prosocial behavior. Common goods are any resource like forests or fisheries that are non-excludable to a population, but rivalrous. In-demand common goods require cooperation of humans to ensure sustainable use in order to avoid depletion. Chapter One examined how children in three populations that differed in ecological certainty behaved in a common goods game where they were asked to contribute portions of their personal endowment to the maintenance of a forest. Participants were either provided a high extrinsic motivation, a low extrinsic motivation, or no extrinsic motivation for contributing to the maintenance of the common good. Results show that overall, children of all ages were more motivated to contribute to abstract recipients when extrinsic motivation is high. However, noticeable variation in behavior between populations was driven by ecological and cultural differences. Chapter Two examined whether aggregated extrinsic rewards increased contributions to common goods in a sample of children aged six to fourteen. Results suggest that both information about personal loss and delay in an acquiring resource together dramatically increase children’s contributions to common goods within both experimental and real-world contexts. Chapter Three explores whether making a typically abstract social partner more tangible increases an individual’s prosocial behavior towards said partner. Results for Chapter Three, conducted with a population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, find that increasingly the tangibility of an abstract population marginally increases prosocial behavior in children but not in adults. Together, the results of these studies have implications improved understanding of the development of prosocial motivations in school age children, as well as applications to understanding motivations for socially conscious behavior in the face of environmental and conservation dilemmas.





Bowie, Aleah C (2019). Adaptive Motivations Drive Concern for Common Good Resources. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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