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?