Project information
Signaler psychology: Investigating computations underlying human cooperative communication

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Project Identification
Project Period
1/2023 - 12/2025
Investor / Pogramme / Project type
Czech Science Foundation
MU Faculty or unit
Faculty of Arts

Human cooperative intentions are intrinsically hidden from other people: willingness to help, support important values, or abide by mutually binding norms are all confined to the mind. While people can verbally advertise their intentions for cooperative and prestige benefits, such verbal communication is often mistrusted and considered as “cheap talk” because it can be easily faked. Instead, people may choose to advertise their sincere intentions using symbolic, embroidered gestures that are associated with important costs. Whenever the benefits of collective action are at stake, costly signals help assort group members with sincere cooperative intentions. However, while costly signals are found across human societies, it is puzzling while people lacking cooperative intentions would not perform the costly gesture and then just free-ride on the collective effort of their partners. Indeed, this is exactly what would the economic rational choice model predict. To solve this puzzle, we propose that the effectiveness of costly signals is facilitated by the specific architecture of the human mind whereby the computations of utility of costly signals rely on intuitive and affective cognitive processes. By biasing the perception of signal costs and benefits, the intuitive processes generate a parameter space where the utility of increasingly costly signals is perceived as negative by uncommitted individuals. However, this proposition has not been empirically tested, leaving a critical gap in our understanding of fundamental aspects of human communication. To this end, we will conduct eight experimental studies with the general Czech and US populations. We will use an experimental framework previously developed by our team where participants are first scored on their cooperative intentions and then take part in financially incentivized collective-action dilemma where they can use costly signals to communicate their intentions. Using this framework, we will achieve three interrelated objectives. Specifically, we will 1) assess whether the decision to signal is facilitated by intuitive or deliberative cognitive processes, 2) test whether cooperative intention biases the perception of costs, benefits, or both, and 3) provide an ecologically valid test of our theory using real-world costly signals.

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