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MDE Manage Decis Econ. 2006 Mar;27(2-3):103-129.

Cognitive Adaptations for n-person Exchange: The Evolutionary Roots of Organizational Behavior.

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Center for Evolutionary Psychology, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3210, USA.


Organizations are composed of stable, predominantly cooperative interactions or n-person exchanges. Humans have been engaging in n-person exchanges for a great enough period of evolutionary time that we appear to have evolved a distinct constellation of species-typical mechanisms specialized to solve the adaptive problems posed by this form of social interaction. These mechanisms appear to have been evolutionarily elaborated out of the cognitive infrastructure that initially evolved for dyadic exchange. Key adaptive problems that these mechanisms are designed to solve include coordination among individuals, and defense against exploitation by free riders. Multi-individual cooperation could not have been maintained over evolutionary time if free riders reliably benefited more than contributors to collective enterprises, and so outcompeted them. As a result, humans evolved mechanisms that implement an aversion to exploitation by free riding, and a strategy of conditional cooperation, supplemented by punitive sentiment towards free riders. Because of the design of these mechanisms, how free riding is treated is a central determinant of the survival and health of cooperative organizations. The mapping of the evolved psychology of n-party exchange cooperation may contribute to the construction of a principled theoretical foundation for the understanding of human behavior in organizations.

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