Skip to main content


PSY3009 : To cheat or not to cheat: the evolution of cooperative behaviour

  • Offered for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Mrs Billie Moffat-Knox
  • Owning School: Psychology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 10
ECTS Credits: 5.0


The aims of this module are:
to show how cooperation is a fundamental aspect of human and animal nature;
to show how disciplines ranging from economics to evolutionary psychology can contribute to understanding cooperation;
to provide an understanding of how and why individuals cooperate with each other;
to use cooperation as a model for understanding the roles of mechanistic and functional explanations of behaviour;
and to use cooperation as a model for appreciating the various moral, ethical and practical issues surrounding appropriate research methods;

Cooperative behaviours range from helpful acts to costly altruism. Human cooperation is complex; we donate blood to strangers and feel good when ‘unfair’ cheats are punished. Non-human animals also regularly engage in cooperation, for example vampire bats will share blood with non-relatives in need of food. Philosophers and scientists have grappled with the problems of cooperation for millennia but we now know cooperation has played a prominent role in the evolution of life. The module uses an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the evolution of cooperation; perspectives include paleoanthropology, psychology, and behavioural economics. The behavioural ecology of cooperation in other animals is drawn on to show the evolutionary origins of cooperation in humans. The course provides a close link between research and teaching by drawing on the latest advances, including work carried out in the department.

Outline Of Syllabus

Some themes are broad and extend across the module, while others are narrower and may constitute the focus of one lecture. Indicative themes are:

The fundamentals of cooperation: the semantics of key terms, its history in science, and its place in nature
Evolution & natural selection
Tinbergen’s 4 whys (proximate mechanisms, development, functions, & evolution)
Paleoanthropology & primatology
Human and non-human animal cooperation
Behavioural ecology, anthropology and comparative analysis - comparing different species and their habitats and how it leads to particular behaviours
Game theory and the economic approach to cooperation
Kin selection/kinship
Reciprocal altruism aka direct reciprocity
Reputations: indirect reciprocity, competitive altruism and signaling
Cheat recognition and recall
Trust, fairness, & punishment
Cognitive, hormonal and neural aspects of cooperation
Social emotions
Tradeoffs between competition and cooperation
Sociality and group living
The role of culture
Contemporary social dilemmas
Ethics, morality, religion & spirituality
Exam preparation and practice essay guidance

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion110:0010:00Completing the ethogram
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture121:0012:00Interactive lectures
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading361:0036:00Reading for lectures
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching111:0011:00Seminars/practical sessions
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesFieldwork13:003:00Length includes travel time to and from field study site.
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study281:0028:00Further reading
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures are used as the primary and most effective mode of imparting the core knowledge of the module. They include interactive materials (such as recall of cheaters’ faces) to enhance the student experience. Seminars are entirely interactive and range from playing economic games (to demonstrate their role within cooperation research) to designing ethograms for field study data collection and debating current issues in cooperation research (ranging from the ethical to the theoretical). These seminars enrich core module knowledge by incorporating hands on experience. The seminar series may also consist of an external seminar; following an appropriate risk assessment by the module leader, students will engage in field observations of a human or non-human animal cooperative behaviour while using an ethogram and then discuss their findings in relation to the module’s knowledge and skills outcomes. The private study is essential for in depth review of knowledge imparted during lectures and is essential for an upper 2.1 or first class mark.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Description Length Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written Examination1202A80Unseen comprising 2 essay questions from a choice of 6
Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written exercise2M20Submission of an ethogram (1-2 sides of A4)
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The written examination is used to assess knowledge, independent learning and understanding of material relevant to the module (Intended Knowledge Outcomes 1-4), the ability to integrate this material and to communicate it clearly, as well as the ability for critical thought and originality of approach (Intended Skills Outcomes 1-3).

The ethogram allows for deeper understanding of one area of the course i.e. consideration of moral, ethical and practical issues in cooperation research methods, (Intended Knowledge Outcome 5) and assesses the ability to use this knowledge to create materials that measure cooperative behaviour (Intended Skills Outcome 4). Students will also be given the opportunity to practice using an ethogram in the collection of observational behavioural data. The assessed ethogram will be developed independently alongside interactive seminar workshops on material development.

Students can gain formative feedback on their learning of the assessed knowledge and skills throughout the course. Formative feedback is primarily given by the module leader in the interactive sessions, lectures, but also includes formative feedback from peers in the interactive sessions.

FMS Schools offering Semester One modules available as ‘Study Abroad’ will, where required, provide an alternative assessment time for examinations that take place after the Christmas vacation. Coursework with submissions dates after the Christmas vacation will either be submitted at an earlier date or at the same time remotely.

The form of assessment will not vary from the original.

Reading Lists