Variation in Creativity and Imagination

Cooperation and Cumulative Culture

Research team

Alex Mesoudi, Principal Investigator 
Keith Jensen, Co-Investigator
Lei Chang, Co-Investigator

Key Information

Full title: From information free-riding to information sharing: how have humans solved the cooperative dilemma at the heart of cumulative cultural evolution?
Host institution: University of Exeter (United Kingdom)
Research location: United Kingdom, China

Project overview 

Imagine you come up with a brilliant idea at work after months of hard work, some great new method for doing a really difficult task that everyone hates. In your excitement, you tell a close colleague. But imagine that colleague steals your idea and takes all the credit. Soon everyone in the company is benefiting from your amazing method. You are, understandably, furious. You vow never to bother to try to improve anything ever again, or at least to keep your good ideas to yourself in the future.

Something like this scenario has played out countless times in human societies past and present, and has seriously slowed the pace of innovation and cultural change. For example, the medieval Venetian Republic prohibited expert glassmakers from leaving the city on pain of death to prevent them taking their expertise to rival states. While this information hoarding was good for Venice, it stalled the cumulative evolution of glass technology for centuries.

Woman whispering in another woman's ear
Are you willing to share information? – Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Our project uses computer models and online experiments to better understand how people have tried, sometimes successfully, to solve this problem. At its heart, it is a cooperation problem. In the scenario above, your colleagues are ‘information free-riders’, benefiting from your costly innovation without paying the cost themselves. The response of the Venetian state is to engage in selfish ‘information hoarding’. This reduces the number of people sharing and improving ideas, slowing the accumulation of beneficial innovations.

Biologists have come up with several solutions to cooperative dilemmas, such as reciprocity, where you cooperate only with others who have cooperated with you previously, or group selection, where groups of cooperators do better than groups of free-riders. We will use models to investigate which solutions work under what conditions, and experiments to see which are consistent with people’s psychology.

Project contacts

If you would like to contact the project team, please email the grant management team in the first instance, at

Alex Mesoudi: Website
Keith Jensen: Website
Lei Chang: Website