Methodological and Conceptual Issues in Studying the Evolution of Social Behaviour: The Case of Cooperative Problem-Solving


  • Ljerka Ostojić Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE), Rijeka


evolution, social cognition, cooperation, cooperative problem-solving, learning, animals


A major research area in non-human social cognition is the investigation of cooperative problem-solving, i.e. the cognition involved in situations when animals cooperate with each other. Social cognition is thought to have evolved due to the demands of social living and is often thought to present an adaptive specialisation for living in groups. A previous analysis of social learning, another area of social cognition, has highlighted how this has consequently led to two overarching biases in the literature: firstly, a bias towards testing only social species, and secondly, an a priori assumption that social learning is qualitatively different from learning involved in non-social situations. The problem of these biases may not be restricted only to social learning but it may also be present in other areas of social cognition research. Applying an equivalent analysis to cooperative problem-solving shows that here too both biases are present. Firstly, empirical studies on cooperative problem-solving were primarily conducted with social species and species that exhibit cooperative behaviours in the wild. Secondly, the assumption that cooperative problem-solving relies on a distinctly social cognitive ability can, at least implicitly, be observed throughout the literature. This may be the result of confounding different components of the cognitive process involved in cooperation: what information is required to successfully cooperate and how this information is acquired. While the former needs to involve information about another individual, there is no indication that the latter is required to differ from any known, domain-general cognitive mechanism. These two biases make it difficult to systematically test whether and how cooperation differs between species, and as such impede investigations into the evolution of cooperative problem-solving.