Generosity among the Ik of Uganda

Cathryn Townsend, Athena Aktipis, Daniel Balliet, Lee Cronk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


According to Turnbull's 1972 ethnography The Mountain People, the Ik of Uganda had a culture of selfishness that made them uncooperative. His claims contrast with two widely accepted principles in evolutionary biology, that humans cooperate on larger scales than other species and that culture is an important facilitator of such cooperation. We use recently collected data to examine Ik culture and its influence on Ik behaviour. Turnbull's observations of selfishness were not necessarily inaccurate but they occurred during a severe famine. Cooperation re-emerged when people once again had enough resources to share. Accordingly, Ik donations in unframed Dictator Games are on par with average donations in Dictator Games played by people around the world. Furthermore, Ik culture includes traits that encourage sharing with those in need and a belief in supernatural punishment of selfishness. When these traits are used to frame Dictator Games, the average amounts given by Ik players increase. Turnbull's claim that the Ik have a culture of selfishness can be rejected. Cooperative norms are resilient, and the consensus among scholars that humans are remarkably cooperative and that human cooperation is supported by culture can remain intact.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
StatePublished - 2020


  • Cooperation
  • Dictator game
  • Famine
  • Generosity
  • Scarcity
  • Sharing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Applied Psychology


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