Revisiting the Form and Function of Conflict: Mechanisms for Attack and Defense

forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Conflict can profoundly affect individuals and their groups. Oftentimes, conflict involves a clash between one side seeking change and increased gains through victory, and the other side defending the status quo and protecting against loss and defeat. However, theory and empirical research largely neglected these conflicts between attackers and defenders, and the strategic, social, and psychological consequences of attack and defense remain poorly understood. To fill this void, we model (i) the clashing of attack and defense as games of strategy, reveal that (ii) attack benefits from mismatching its target's level of defense, whereas defense benefits from matching the attacker's competitiveness, suggest that (iii) attack recruits neuro-endocrine pathways underlying behavioral activation and overconfidence, whereas defense invokes neural networks for behavioral inhibition, vigilant scanning and hostile attributions, and show that (iv) people invest less in attack than defense and attack often fails. Finally, we propose that (v) in intergroup conflict out-group attack needs institutional arrangements that motivate and coordinate collective action, whereas in-group defense benefits from endogenously emerging in-group identification. We discuss how games of attack and defense may have shaped human capacities for pro-sociality and aggression, and how third parties can regulate such conflicts, and reduce its waste.

–  Carsten De Dreu, Jörg Gross

DOI:10.1177/0956797618796480Supplementary Information

published 2018 in Psychological Science, volume 29, issue 12.

Corruption is often the product of coordinated rule-violations. We investigate how such corrupt collaboration emerges and spreads when people can choose their partners (vs. not). Participants were assigned a partner and could increase their payoff by coordinated lying. After several interactions, they were either free to choose whether to stay or switch partners, or forced to stay with (or switch) their partner. Results reveal both dishonest and honest people exploit the freedom to choose a partner. Dishonest people seek and find a partner that will also lie — a "partner in crime." Honest people, by contrast, engage in ethical free-riding: they refrain from lying but also from leaving dishonest partners, taking advantage of their partners’ lies. We conclude that to curb collaborative corruption, relying on people’s honesty is insufficient. Encouraging honest individuals not to engage in ethical free-riding is essential.

–  Jörg Gross, Margarita Leib, Theo Offerman, Shaul Shalvi

DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-19997-5Supplementary Information

published 2018 in Scientific Reports, volume 8.

Decisions are often governed by rules on adequate social behaviour. Recent research suggests that the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC) is involved in the implementation of internal fairness rules (norms), by controlling the impulse to act selfishly. A drawback of these studies is that the assumed norms and impulses have to be deduced from behaviour and that norm-following and pro-sociality are indistinguishable. Here, we directly confronted participants with a rule that demanded to make advantageous or disadvantageous monetary allocations for themselves or another person. To disentangle its functional role in rule-following and pro-sociality, we divergently manipulated the rLPFC by applying cathodal or anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Cathodal tDCS increased participants’ rule-following, even of rules that demanded to lose money or hurt another person financially. In contrast, anodal tDCS led participants to specifically violate more often those rules that were at odds with what participants chose freely. Brain stimulation over the rLPFC thus did not simply increase or decrease selfishness. Instead, by disentangling rule-following and pro-sociality, our results point to a broader role of the rLPFC in integrating the costs and benefits of rules in order to align decisions with internal goals, ultimately enabling to flexibly adapt social behaviour.

–  Jörg Gross, Franziska Emmerling, Alexander Vostroknutov, Alexander Sack


published 2017 in SCAN, volume 12, issue 3.

Rules, whether in the form of norms, taboos or laws, regulate and coordinate human life. Some rules, however, are arbitrary and adhering to them can be personally costly. Rigidly sticking to such rules can be considered maladaptive. Here, we test whether, at the neurobiological level, (mal)adaptive rule adherence is reduced by oxytocin – a hypothalamic neuropeptide that biases the biobehavioural approach-avoidance system. Participants self-administered oxytocin or placebo intranasally, and reported their need for structure and approach-avoidance sensitivity. Next, participants made binary decisions and were given an arbitrary rule that demanded to forgo financial benefits. Under oxytocin, participants violated the rule more often, especially when they had high need for structure and high approach sensitivity. Possibly, oxytocin dampens the need for a highly structured environment and enables individuals to flexibly trade-off internal desires against external restrictions. Implications for the treatment of clinical disorders marked by maladaptive rule adherence are discussed.

–  Jörg Gross, Carsten De Dreu


published 2016 in PNAS, volume 113, issue 38.

Intergroup conflict persists when and because individuals make costly contributions to their group’s fighting capacity, but how groups organize contributions into effective collective action remains poorly understood. Here we distinguish between contributions aimed at subordinating out-groups (out-group aggression) from those aimed at defending the in-group against possible out-group aggression (in-group defense). We conducted two experiments in which three-person aggressor groups confronted three-person defender groups in a multiround contest game. Individuals received an endowment from which they could contribute to their group’s fighting capacity. Contributions were always wasted, but when the aggressor group’s fighting capacity exceeded that of the defender group, the aggressor group acquired the defender group’s remaining resources. In-group defense appeared stronger and better coordinated than out-group aggression, and defender groups survived roughly 70% of the attacks. This low success rate for aggressor groups mirrored that of group-hunting predators such as wolves and chimpanzees, hostile takeovers in industry, and interstate conflicts. Furthermore, whereas peer punishment increased out-group aggression more than in-group defense without affecting success rates, sequential decision-making increased coordination of collective action for out-group aggression, doubling the aggressor’s success rate. The relatively high success rate of in-group defense suggests evolutionary and cultural pressures may have favored capacities for cooperation and coordination when the group goal is to defend, rather than to expand, dominate, and exploit.

–  Carsten De Dreu, Jörg Gross, Zsombor Méder, Michael Giffin, Eliska Prochazkova, Jonathan Krikeb, Simon Columbus

DOI:10.1038/srep20767Supplementary Information

published 2016 in Scientific Reports, volume 6.

The prevalence of cooperation among humans is puzzling because cooperators can be exploited by free riders. Peer punishment has been suggested as a solution to this puzzle, but cumulating evidence questions its robustness in sustaining cooperation. Amongst others, punishment fails when it is not powerful enough, or when it elicits counter-punishment. Existing research, however, has ignored that the distribution of punishment power can be the result of social interactions. We introduce a novel experiment in which individuals can transfer punishment power to others. We find that while decentralised peer punishment fails to overcome free riding, the voluntary transfer of punishment power enables groups to sustain cooperation. This is achieved by non-punishing cooperators empowering those who are willing to punish in the interest of the group. Our results show how voluntary power centralisation can efficiently sustain cooperation, which could explain why hierarchical power structures are widespread among animals and humans.

–  Jörg Gross, Zsombor Méder, Sanae Barth, Arno Riedl

DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0127619Supplementary Information

published 2015 in Plos ONE, volume 10, issue 6.

One fundamental question in decision making research is how humans compute the values that guide their decisions. Recent studies showed that people assign higher value to goods that are closer to them, even when physical proximity should be irrelevant for the decision from a normative perspective. This phenomenon, however, seems reasonable from an evolutionary perspective. Most foraging decisions of animals involve the trade-off between the value that can be obtained and the associated effort of obtaining. Anticipated effort for physically obtaining a good could therefore affect the subjective value of this good. In this experiment, we test this hypothesis by letting participants state their subjective value for snack food while the effort that would be incurred when reaching for it was manipulated. Even though reaching was not required in the experiment, we find that willingness to pay was significantly lower when subjects wore heavy wristbands on their arms. Thus, when reaching was more difficult, items were perceived as less valuable. Importantly, this was only the case when items were physically in front of the participants but not when items were presented as text on a computer screen. Our results suggest automatic interactions of motor and valuation processes which are unexplored to this date and may account for irrational decisions that occur when reward is particularly easy to reach.

–  Jörg Gross, Eva Woelbert, Martin Strobel

DOI:10.1093/scan/nsu114Supplementary Information

published 2015 in SCAN, volume 10, issue 6.

Social norms, such as treating others fairly regardless of kin relations, are essential for the functioning of human societies. Their existence may explain why humans, among all species, show unique patterns of prosocial behaviour. The maintenance of social norms often depends on external enforcement, as in the absence of credible sanctioning mechanisms prosocial behaviour deteriorates quickly. This sanction-dependent prosocial behaviour suggests that humans strategically adapt their behaviour and act selfishly if possible but control selfish impulses if necessary. Recent studies point at the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in controlling selfish impulses. We test whether the DLPFC is indeed involved in the control of selfish impulses as well as the strategic acquisition of this control mechanism. Using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, we provide evidence for the causal role of the right DLPFC in strategic fairness. Because the DLPFC is phylogenetically one of the latest developed neocortical regions, this could explain why complex norm systems exist in humans but not in other social animals.

–  Sabrina Strang, Jörg Gross, Teresa Schuhmann, Arno Riedl, Bernd Weber, Alexander Sack

DOI:10.1523/jneurosci.5082-13.2014Supplementary Information

published 2014 in The Journal of Neuroscience, volume 34, issue 22.

Humans can choose between fundamentally different options such as watching a movie or going out for dinner. According to the utility concept, put forward by utilitarian philosophers and widely used in economics, this may be accomplished by mapping the value of different options onto a common scale, independent of specific option characteristics. If this is the case, value-related activity patterns in the brain should allow predictions of individual preferences across fundamentally different reward categories. We analyze fMRI data of the prefrontal cortex while subjects imagine the pleasure they would derive from items belonging to two distinct reward categories: engaging activities (like going out for drinks, daydreaming or doing sports) and snack foods. Support vector machines trained on brain patterns related to one category reliably predict individual preferences of the other category and vice versa. Further, we predict preferences across participants. These findings demonstrate that prefrontal cortex value signals follow a common scale representation of value that is even comparable across individuals and could in principle be used to predict choice.

–  Jörg Gross, Eva Woelbert, Jan Zimmermann, Sanae Barth, Arno Riedl, Rainer Goebel

From Simple Choice to Social Decision

My PhD dissertation "From Simple Choice to Social Decision – On the Neurobiological and Evolutionary Roots of Decision Making".

–  Jörg Gross

R Reader

German introduction to R. R is a programming language and free software environment for statistical computing and thus a free and very powerful alternative to commercial software like MatLab, SPSS, Stata or SAS. The reader covers basic syntax, data types, data import and export, plotting, basic descriptive statistics functions, distribution generation, loops and regression analysis.

–  Jörg Gross, Benjamin Peters

Statistics Reader

German introduction to basic concepts of statistics. The reader was used in bachelor level education and covers concepts of measurement theory, descriptive statistics, data visualization, an introduction to probability theory and inferential statistics.

–  Jörg Gross

Neuronale Erklärungsansätze für das Phänomen der altruistischen Bestrafung

My master thesis about the neuronal and behavioral correlates of altruistic punishment – the punishment of unfair behavior from a bystander perspective (in german).

–  Jörg Gross, Franziska Schuricht