Can a person earn a better social reputation by helping the same person on a regular basis, or by assisting large numbers of different people occasionally? This is the question that three US researchers sought to answer by by studying an Afro-Caribbean village on the island of Dominica.
The village population of around 400 mainly earns a living from the cultivation of the Caribbean bay tree (Pimenta racesmosa), the leaves of which are steam distilled to produce essential bay oil.
Bay oil distillation is extremely taxing work and impossible to perform alone. However, when individuals distil bay oil, they do not ask others for assistance. Instead they start the work alone.
The anthropologists found that it was a tradition in the village for individuals to provide assistance to a person if they had received help with labour in the past from that individual.
"Because the village is small and the activity is highly conspicuous, people realize when they are obligated to assist," wrote the team led by Shane J Macfarlan from the University of Missouri in Swallow Hall.
Their findings have now been published in the science journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
The study recorded who worked in the village´s eight distilleries over a 20-month period. Land managers harvest plots of bay every 10 months but access to multiple plots of land and staggered growth meant they had to labour all year round.
Researchers noticed that oil was distilled from the bay leaves 193 times in the first 10 months with 92 men involved, either as land managers, referred to as a ´chief-for-a-day´ (CFAD) when they distil bay oil, or as assistants.
In the second period, 272 distillations took place with the involvement of 101 men.
A set of 53 males had their reputations assessed in both time periods by the researchers. The analysis suggests that reputations link to the number of individuals one assists in economic production, rather than the number of cooperative acts.
In other words, if you want to earn a good reputation then help several people. There is no need to help the same person too often.
People who were the most cooperative had the best reputation amongst their colleagues. They received return help from more people than the less-cooperative villagers.
However, there were situations where a cooperative individual was unable to provide assistance to a person from whom they had received labour in the past, which led to them being considered uncooperative.