Ear­lier research on the puz­zling phe­nom­enon of coop­er­a­tion had revealed how sur­pris­ingly com­plex it is, and revised the long-​​standing image of people as cold, cal­cu­lating, and self-​​interested. An implicit assump­tion about why coop­er­a­tion hap­pens so fre­quently, how­ever, was that such behavior would have rewards for the indi­vid­uals involved — either through direct pay­back or through the building up of reputation.

When I and other people study coop­er­a­tion, we have this idea built into it that the reason I coop­erate with you is that down the road you’ll treat me fairly,” said David DeSteno, a psy­chology pro­fessor at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity who was not involved in the research. But in the case of pos­terity, that ques­tion was less clear. Short of time travel, future gen­er­a­tions have no way to pay us back, and would the same moti­va­tions for coop­er­a­tion exist when the recip­i­ents of the gen­erosity were merely hypothetical?

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