Why and how humans share food resources differs uniquely from any other species. In this new research, the authors wanted to study the choice between stealing and sharing where there is only voluntary engagement, with no external enforcement agency. Hoping to shed light on the origins of human cooperation and exchange, they conducted an experiment to determine whether an abundance of perishable resources triggers an adaptive sharing response in humans.

“We tend to think that people are instinctively selfish, and in our experiment they initially are,” said Bart Wilson, Ph.D., professor and director of Chapman University’s Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy. “So it’s pretty remarkable how humans find a way to cooperate and trade after the initial rampages of theft. I didn’t expect such a clear result. It surprised me how much stealing dropped over time. The uncertainty of the future helps prepare people to be more cooperative.”

Hunting and gathering data shows that returns are variable from day to day, resulting in an overabundance of food on some days, and no meat on others. During the experiment, individuals were allowed to transfer their food resources to others, attempt to take from others, or defend against others’ attempts to take food from them. Stealing attempts initially dominated participants’ behavior, but these actions lessened as they chose to share more. Throughout the experiment, participants discovered that they actually gained more overall from exchanging goods, and this action proved to be more beneficial than taking.

The authors argue that sharing resources with non-family members is a fundamental characteristic of our species. These results suggest groups that choose to share their resources with others can compete more effectively than those who simply take items from others or display more solitary behaviors.

The research, titled “Experimental tests of the tolerated theft and risk-reduction theories of resource exchange” was published in the prestigious science journal Nature Human Behaviour. Authors include Hillard Kaplan, Eric Schniter, Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson.


About Chapman University: Founded in 1861 and based in the city of Orange, California, Chapman University is one of the oldest, most prestigious private universities in the state and is the largest independent university in Orange County. With a student body of 9,400 undergraduate and graduate students, Chapman University offers all the opportunities and resources of a large institution with the personalized attention of a smaller university. The University employs 489 full-time instructional faculty and maintains a 14:1 student-faculty ratio and an average class size of 23 students. Known for its blend of liberal arts and professional programs – including film, science, business, education, humanities and performing arts – Chapman encompasses 10 schools and colleges.

Log In
Open Main Menu