Knowing Names Makes Cooperation More Likely


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

prisoner number

There is a reason real prisoners are called by numbers as punishment - it makes it easier to dehumanize them. Ollyy/Shutterstock

Names are powerful things. Just knowing what someone calls themself makes us more likely to cooperate – rather than compete – with them, a new study has found. The discovery could prove useful in reducing conflict, but some writers of fiction might be asking scientists “what took you so long?”

Social scientists have spent much effort testing variations of the “Prisoner's Dilemma” to find out under what circumstances people prefer to cooperate for the common good, rather than seek their own advantage. It's hardly surprising that people are more likely to cooperate with those they already trust or are likely to interact with in the future. However, according to Zhen Wang and co-authors, even the tiny connection provided by knowing another participant's name increases the chance of cooperation.


Wang of the Northwestern Polytechnical University in China collaborated with researchers from five other countries on the project. They studied the behavior of 154 randomly paired Yunnan University undergraduates who interacted in repeated Prisoner's Dilemma scenarios, where they had the choice to cooperate, defect, or punish the other player, with the knowledge they would probably have future rounds with the same partner.

Cooperators sacrificed one unit so the other player got two. Defectors got a unit for themselves at the expense of the other player, while those who opted for punishment lost one unit while penalizing the other player four units, discouraging past defectors from repeating their actions.

In Science Advances, Wang reports that knowing each others' names was enough to induce most participants to cooperate initially, in contrast to anonymous rounds where defection dominated.

The authors acknowledge the possibility the result was enhanced by the participants being classmates of similar background. Nevertheless, the effect was large compared to those seen from other attempts to tweak Prisoner's Dilemma outcomes.


The Prisoner's Dilemma has been intensively studied partly because human survival depends on cooperation, so finding ways to increase it has value. This work has been further spurred by the observation that cooperation is common in nature, in defiance of crude evolutionary models, which predicted it should seldom exist. The drive to understand the discrepancy has greatly expanded what we know about the workings of evolution, including studies of the way that cooperators, by grouping together, can offset the advantage gained by “free riders” who profit from others' generosity while offering none of their own.

Although this may be the first scientific proof, the idea we care more for those whose names we know is widespread. Our names shape how people treat us, possibly enough to change how we look. In The West Wing series, Leo McGarry complained he couldn't eat the lobsters his daughter had named, a phenomenon common enough for the audience to recognize.


  • tag
  • cooperation,

  • Altruism,

  • prisoner's dilemma,

  • power of names,

  • evolutionary strategy