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Brother, can you spare a dime? Understanding why we lend a hand

New ASU psychology assistant professor Aktipis studies sharing systems around the world through Human Generosity Project

A woman smiles for a portrait

January 27, 2016

Why help someone when you’ll receive nothing in return? How have groups of people cooperating together ensured group survival?

These questions lie at the roots of the work of a new Arizona State University professor’s work.

Athena Aktipis, an assistant professor in the Department of PsychologyThe Department of Psychology is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and a member of the Center for Evolution and Medicine, is a cooperation theorist, theoretical evolutionary biologist, and cancer biologist working at the intersection of these fields.

Aktipis is co-director of the Human Generosity Project, the first large-scale transdisciplinary research project to investigate the interrelationship between biological and cultural influences on human generosity.

The project draws from anthropology, psychology, computer science and math.

“We’re diverse in disciplines and methodologies, but that’s what makes it fun,” Aktipis said. “We’re all learning from each other.”

ASU’s hallmark approach to reaching across academic boundaries attracted her to the position.

“Of all the places I’ve ever been, ASU has the best interdisciplinary research and sense of innovation and energy,” Aktipis said. “Even when I was a postdoc down at UofA, I’d come up here often for seminars and really enjoyed it because there’s a great community of people thinking outside the box instead of within disciplinary boundaries. I really enjoyed that.”

The Human Generosity Project began about 10 years ago. Aktipis co-directs the project with Lee Cronk, an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers. They began talking about modeling a system of sharing he studied in Africa among the Maasai tribe of East Africa. The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd cattle and other livestock. They have a sharing system based on need.

“The main rules that govern it are that you only ask if you’re genuinely in need,” Aktipis said. “If you’re asked by one of your partners and you’re able to give, if you have enough, then you give. That’s how the system works. We started talking about creating a computational model of this to explore if that increases survival of herds in the volatile ecological environment the Maasai are in. They have drought, they have other natural disasters, they have cattle raiding, there are all of these uncertainties they are always facing.”

The project started out as a side project Aktipis and Cronk met once a month to work on. When they completed the model, they had an epiphany.

“We realized, ‘Hey, not only does this seem to really improve the survival of herds, but it also ties the fates of the partners together in ways that are really interesting,’ ” she said. “You get more correlations between the outcomes of the different partners. We decided it would make sense to take it further, so we started modeling how this need-based transfer system performs in contrast to account keeping, which is what we’re accustomed to thinking about, whether it’s reciprocity or sharing.”

When they won a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports scientific, philosophical and theological research, they launched the Human Generosity Project, doing new models, gathering collaborators and going into field looking for need-based transfer relationships.

“Now we have people all over the world embedded in these field sites, from Fiji to Tanzania to Mongolia, where they’re looking at how people share, especially when things get hard,” Aktipis said.

The project has four main components: computational modeling, field work, human subject experiments in sharing, and outreach — looking at how need-based transfer systems work in the real world.

“We’re interested in particular in resource management and disaster recovery,” Aktipis said. “How can we measure to what extent that kind of helping occurs in disaster situations, and are there opportunities to learn from the research we’ve been doing and apply it to situations where there’s been a disaster?”

Can helping people in need mitigate events of radical uncertainty like natural disasters?

“Getting hit by an asteroid — we don’t really know how to insure against something like that,” Aktipis said. “We think there’s some chance need-based transfer systems might allow for risk management in scenarios you can’t deal with with actuarial tables. That’s something we’re exploring.”

Aktipis hopes to accomplish a great deal in her time at ASU.

“I think there are a lot of interesting aspects of human nature that have not been fully explored from an evolutionary or anthropological perspective,” she said. “There are these kinds of open areas for new enquiry. What I want to do most is explore those frontiers of our knowledge.”

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