The evolution of power and the divergence of cooperative norms

Michael D. Makowsky, Paul E. Smaldino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We consider a model of multilevel selection and the evolution of institutions that distribute power in the form of influence in a group's collective interactions with other groups. In the absence of direct group-level interactions, groups with the most cooperative members will outcompete less cooperative groups, while within any group the least cooperative members will be the most successful. Introducing group-level interactions, however, such as raiding or warfare, changes the selective landscape for groups. Our model suggests that as the global population becomes more integrated and the rate of intergroup conflict increases, selection increasingly favors unequally distributed power structures, where individual influence is weighted by acquired resources. The advantage to less democratic groups rests in their ability to facilitate selection for cooperative strategies - involving cooperation both among themselves and with outsiders - in order to produce the resources necessary to fuel their success in inter-group conflicts, while simultaneously selecting for leaders (and corresponding collective behavior) who are unburdened with those same prosocial norms. The coevolution of cooperative social norms and institutions of power facilitates the emergence of a leadership class of the selfish and has implications for theories of inequality, structures of governance, non-cooperative personality traits, and hierarchy. Our findings suggest an amendment to the well-known doctrine of multilevel selection that "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups." In an interconnected world, altruistic groups led by selfish individuals can beat them both.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)75-88
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Economic Behavior and Organization
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Agent-based modeling
  • Conflict
  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural group selection
  • Institutions
  • Leadership
  • Multilevel selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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