Graduate student studies how people detect cheating

By

Robert Ewing

Andres Munoz, a doctoral student in the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, studies cooperation from an evolutionary perspective and what happens when it breaks down.

In the past, most researchers studying cooperation from an evolutionary perspective have focused on rules like reciprocity, where individuals pay each other back for helping each other. What Munoz is looking at is different: He is examining other rules for cooperation that are based on the need of the recipient rather than based on the expectation of being repaid.

His focus is specifically on “cheater detection,” or how people know when individuals deviate from social rules in pursuit of a personal benefit at a cost to someone else. In particular, he is interested in the cognitive mechanisms that allow people to detect stinginess and greediness.

Munoz started at DePauw University as an economics major, but he quickly realized he wanted to study how people think and work toward beneficial societal change.

His research project is part of the Human Generosity Project, which is a cross-disciplinary initiative involving Athena Aktipis, ASU assistant professor of psychology, and Lee Cronk, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. The Human Generosity Project is a multidisciplinary project funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the John Templeton Foundation. The goal is to understand the nature and evolution of human cooperation, and the researchers use fieldwork, laboratory experiments and computational modeling.

“In the Human Generosity Project, we are looking at how people help each other during times of need — what we call ‘need-based transfers.’ The work that Andres is doing helps us understand how we process information in these kinds of situations where people help those in need,” Aktipis said. “Andres is trying to answer questions like: Do we pay special attention to people who ask for help if they're not in need or don't give if they are able? His research suggests that we are wired to attend to this kind of cheating in need-based helping rules.”

Munoz is working with Human Generosity Project field site supervisors to translate materials from the lab to be used in field sites, which include Mongolia, Africa, Fiji and parts of the U.S. His goal is to understand how cooperation systems work to assist those in need and to understand if they hold up from an evolutionary perspective.

Munoz appreciates the world-class evolutionary psychology faculty at ASU, especially the chance to work with Aktipis.

“One of the scientists who I admire is Professor Aktipis. She has the ability to quickly draw connections across disciplines, which results in unexpected insights,” Munoz said. “It's also inspiring to experience Steven Neuberg and Doug Kenrick in action.”

In the future, Munoz wants to pursue his doctorate and map the cognitive architecture that underlies how people detect social rule violations. In addition, he is interested in exploring the effects of different risk management strategies from an evolutionary perspective.