How can we increase altruism towards future generations?

By guest blogger Dan Jones

Like many parents, I often wonder what kind of world my two-year-old son will grow up to inhabit. Will the planet be ravaged by extreme climatic events, depleted of vital forests and biodiversity? Although some of our fears about the future may be overblown, if we don’t want to leave the planet in ruins for future generations, we need to think about how we act today — and maybe change our ways.

Some changes are likely to involve minor sacrifices or small inconveniences – recycling our waste, or walking to the supermarket. The benefits of these gestures will largely be felt in the long term, so they can be seen as a kind of altruism towards, or cooperation with, our children, their children and so on into the indefinite future.

What makes people act this way? Since Darwin’s time, biologists, economists and psychologists have been developing theories of how cooperation and altruism can evolve, and the factors that nurture these prosocial traits. One basic insight is that cooperation and altruism are much more likely to emerge when people know they will continue to interact with each other for the long term, under what Robert Axelrod calls the “shadow of the future”.

But what about when this shadow falls on people who haven’t been born yet, and who won’t therefore be able to reciprocate our kindness? What promotes cooperation in these situations? This is the question that Oliver Hauser and colleagues set out to tackle in research published today.

Cooperating with the future

Studies of cooperation usually involve economic games in which people can act selfishly or cooperatively with other members of their group. In exploring the dynamics of intergenerational cooperation, however, Hauser and colleagues had to invent a new kind of economic game, one that could capture the idea of cooperating with the future.

So they came up with the online Intergenerational Goods Game. To begin with, people are put into groups of five to form the first “generation” of the game. This generation is endowed with 100 units that represent a resource that can be extracted from the environment. Each player in the first generation then independently decides how many units, up to a maximum of 20, to withdraw from the common pool of 100. Every unit a player takes adds 5 cents to their personal turn-up fee of $0.50.

Each group of five players is told that if they collectively withdraw 50 units or fewer from the common pool, then the units are replenished back up to 100, and passed on to the next generation (another group of five) and so on, who will then have the chance to play the same game. If, however, the group exceeds the 50-unit threshold, then the next generation inherits nothing. This means that if the average number of units individual players took is greater than 10, they exceed the threshold. Taking more than 10 units therefore amounts to acting selfishly with regard to the future.

In addition to these rules, players were also told that in any given generation there was a 20 per cent chance that there would not, in fact, be a following generation to worry about. The experiment, which involved US residents, began with 20 groups of five in the first generation, two of which did not have a second generation. But of the 18 that did, just four had their resources replenished; the other 14 inherited nothing because the previous generation exceeded the threshold. By the third generation, just two groups had full resources, and none at all in the fourth generation — bad news for sustainability.

Rotten apples

Hauser et al. found that this selfishness was not a group-wide phenomenon, but was driven by a minority of selfish players (38 per cent) who skewed the otherwise cooperative average of the rest of the group.

So much for when people are left to their own devices. In the next stage of the experiment, Hauser et al. introduced a key institutional innovation: democratic voting. In this version of the game, players voted for the share they felt each group member should receive, and then the median average of these (i.e., the value in the middle of the range) was calculated and multiplied by five. Using the median, rather than the mean, is important because it is more resistant to extreme choices.

In this democratic institutional setting, cooperation with the future got a big boost: the threshold was never exceeded and resources were continually replenished for a full 12 generations (the end of the game). Democratic voting enhanced future-orientated cooperation in two ways. First, using the median average cancelled out extremes of selfishness. Second, and more importantly, it gave players the confidence that playing fair was worthwhile – they knew they wouldn’t end up being the sucker in a group of selfish takers. Cooperative behaviour jumped from 62 per cent to 88 per cent under democracy.

Hauser et al. found that the cooperative benefits of democracy applied even when the threshold for replenishing resources was reduced from 50 units to 40 or 30 (thereby demanding even more self-restraint), and when the probability that there would be any future generations decreased from 80 per cent to 60 per cent. Under these conditions, the percentage of groups that were fully sustained over time did decrease a bit, but nowhere near as much as when voting was absent.

These results are far from being the basis for a sustainable future, or a theory of how populations can keep going. But they do highlight that how we behave, and how much regard we show to others, is not just a function of our innate psychology, or whether we’re fundamentally kind or mean people, but of the kinds of institutions that we find ourselves working within. If we want to change the world we may indeed need to change ourselves — but this should not obscure the fact that we may also need to revise, adapt or invent new institutions to bring out our altruistic, cooperative sides.


Oliver P. Hauser, David G. Rand, Alexander Peysakhovich, & Martin A. Nowak (2014). Cooperating with the future Nature

Post written by Dan Jones (@MultipleDraftz) for the BPS Research Digest. Dan Jones is a freelance writer based in Brighton, UK, whose writing has appeared in The Psychologist, New Scientist, Nature, Science and many other magazines. He blogs at

5 thoughts on “How can we increase altruism towards future generations?”

  1. I have anxiety And depression and i have self harmed for years not really to feel pain or shit like that its because its a distraction from your mental pain for example if itd a nice day out side and your admiring the sky and then you fall on your face and bust your lip open. Your not focusing on the beautiful day your focusing on the pain and only the pain. Same thing with depression and anxiety. Though i cant understand why somebody with no mental illneses would want to inflict pain apoun them….

  2. That was the exact thought that came to mind, Gina. Further, this is a controlled setting. In normal situations with females there are social rules and constraints that come into play. Further, most men are unlikely to feel rejection to this degree as most people would not be so offensive. The question here is aren't these YOUNG men simple just reacting out of some hurt feelings? I don't see anything profound here off the bat. I applaud the attempt to uncover variables that contribute to violence, but this portrayal of what otherwise might be a reasonable study, simply just doesn't do anything constructive.

  3. If these predictions can lead to higher profits for drug companies, and/or foment #WhiteSupremacy through medical pseudo-science, then the answer is yes.

  4. While I agree this study does not serve as a very good example of how average men act, or how anyone would react under the constraints of society (and so it not very good at predicting physical violence IMO) it may still be of some use as an example of what happens with internet trolls, and more importantly potentially with internet harassers and stalkers.

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