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Neuro-economics of Conflict and Cooperation


Entry requirements

Only open to MSc Psychology (research) students


Social conflict has been part and parcel of human history, and exerts a range of effects that easily exceed imagination. Conflict destroys welfare and lives, creates collective imprints and breeding resentments that transcend generations, and can cause famine, large-scale migration, and the spreading of infectious disease. Throughout history, conflicts revised established structures and divides, introduced new views and practices, and changed the genetic make-up and neurobiological organization of individuals and their groups. Although conflict can be about many things such as ownership, territorial access, status and respect, or the truth, it invariably involves decision-makers with incompatible preferences—they all want (to avoid) something that they cannot both have (avoided) at the same time. Indeed, a unifying approach to the multi-disciplinary study of conflict is behavioral game-theory that offers stylized models of conflict such as the well-known prisoner’s dilemma game. Game theoretical models of conflict have been used in the study of international tension and interstate warfare, to examine the group dynamics and cultural arrangements that create and fuel intergroup conflict, to understand the neural networks and neuro-endocrine pathways involved in cooperation and competition, and to model the gene-culture co-evolution of human pro-sociality and aggression. In this course we gain in-depth knowledge of game-theoretic models of conflict and cooperation within and between small groups of people, and learn how such models can be used to unravel the neurobiological mechanisms and psychological functions underlying decisions to cooperate and to compete.

Course objectives

During the course, students:
1. Gain specialized knowledge of game-experimental approach to cooperation and conflict.
2. Acquire knowledge and skills to develop and write a scientific proposal for study into the neurobiological and psychological functions underlying conflict and cooperation.
3. Learn to present, in writing and orally, scientific insights.


For the timetables of your lectures, work groups and exams, please select your study programme in:
Psychology timetables




Students need to enroll for lectures and work group sessions.
Master’s course registration


Students are not automatically enrolled for an examination. They can register via uSis from 100 to 10 calendar days before the date. Students who are not registered will not be permitted to take the examination.
Registering for exams

Mode of instruction

7 3-hour work group sessions (attendance is mandatory).

Assessment method

The final grade is based on:

  • class participation (15%)

  • two research papers (2 x 35%)

  • proposal presentation (15%)

The Institute of Psychology follows the policy of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to systematically check student papers for plagiarism with the help of software. Disciplinary measures will be taken when fraud is detected. Students are expected to be familiar with and understand the implications of this fraud policy.

Readings list

Background Readings:
Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Camerer (2003). Behavioral Game Theory. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press
Selection of scientific articles
Abbink, K., Brandts J., Herrmann, B. & Orzen, H. (2010). Inter-Group Conflict and Intra-Group Punishment in an Experimental Contest Game. Am Econ Rev, 100, 420-447. Bornstein, G. (2003). Intergroup conflict: Individual, group, and collective interests. Pers Soc Psych Rev, 7, 129-145. Dechenaux, E., Kovenock, D. & Sheremeta R.M. (2015). A survey of experimental research on contests, all-pay auctions, and tournaments. Exp Econ, 18, 609 – 669.
De Dreu, C.K.W., Greer, L.L., Handgraaf. M.J.J., Shalvi, S., Van Kleef, G.A., Baas, M., Ten Velden, F.S., Van Dijk, E., & Feith, S.W.W. (2010). The neuropeptide oxytocin regulates parochial altruism in intergroup conflict among humans. Science, 328, 1408 - 1411
De Dreu, C.K.W., Gross J.A.J., Meder, Z., Griffin, M.R., Prochazkova, E., Krikeb, J., & Columbus, S. (2016b). In-group defense, out-group aggression, and coordination failure in intergroup conflict. Proc Nat Acad Sciences, 113, 10524 – 10529.
Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, C.D., & Singer, T. (2010). Neural responses to ingroup and outgroup members’ suffering predict individual differences in costly helping. Neuron, 68, 149 – 160.
Knoch, D., Pascual, L.A., Meyer, K., Trever, V., & Fehr, E. (2006). Diminishing reciprocal fairness by disrupting the right prefrontal cortex. Science, 314, 829 – 832.
Rand, D.G., Greene, J.D., & Nowak, M.A. (2012). Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature, 489, 427 – 430.
Strang, S., Gross, J., Schuhmann, T., Riedl, A., Weber, B., & Sack, A.T. (2015). Be nice if you have to – the neurobiological roots of strategic fairness. Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 10, 790–796.

Contact information

Prof. dr. Carsten de Dreu