Cooperating to show that you care: Costly helping as an honest signal of fitness interdependence

Pat Barclay, Rebecca Bliege Bird, Gilbert Roberts, Szabolcs Számadó

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Social organisms often need to know how much to trust others to cooperate. Organisms can expect cooperation from another organism that depends on them (i.e. stake or fitness interdependence), but how do individuals assess fitness interdependence? Here, we extend fitness interdependence into a signalling context: costly helping behaviour can honestly signal one's stake in others, such that those who help are trusted more. We present a mathematical model in which agents help others based on their stake in the recipient's welfare, and recipients use that information to assess whom to trust. At equilibrium, helping is a costly signal of stake: helping is worthwhile for those who value the recipient (and thus will repay any trust), but is not worthwhile for those who do not value the recipient (and thus will betray the trust). Recipients demand signals when they value the signallers less and when the cost of betrayed trust is higher; signal costs are higher when signallers have more incentive to defect. Signalling systems are more likely when the trust games resemble Prisoner's Dilemmas, Stag Hunts or Harmony Games, and are less likely in Snowdrift Games. Furthermore, we find that honest signals need not benefit recipients and can even occur between hostile parties. By signalling their interdependence, organisms benefit from increased trust, even when no future interactions will occur. This article is part of the theme issue 'The language of cooperation: reputation and honest signalling'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20200292
Pages (from-to)429-431
Number of pages3
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1838
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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