The benefits of sociality: understanding the relationship between cognition and cooperation

Advanced cognitive ability and social complexity are often considered to be strongly intertwined. However, the importance of individual cognitive ability on investment decisions, group stability and fitness has never been comprehensively tested

Individuals that live in groups could have an advantage over solitary individuals in their ability to develop
cognitive skills because social interactions may contribute to neural development and provide opportunities to learn from the skills of other group members. The need to monitor the behaviour of group members, recognize suitable cooperative partners, and make corresponding behavioural adjustments to maximize the benefits of cooperation is likely to be a significant selective pressure.

While both cognition and cooperation have been extensively studied for several decades, the relationship between the two is not well understood. Comparative evidence suggests that there is a relationship between cognitive ability and social complexity, but the effect of variation in sociality within species on individual cognitive ability is unknown. Ultimately, the relevance of understanding the relationship between cognition and cooperation is in how it underpins individual fitness. Western Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen dorsalis) are an excellent species to investigate this important relationship. Magpies are a cooperative species that engage in sophisticated cooperative behaviours, and possess an elaborate and flexible vocal repertoire. A ringed and fully habituated population in Perth provides Professor Ridley with a highly tractable population for research. The team use the habituated population to (a) identify the causes of variation in individual cognitive ability according to group size, (b) determine how variation in cognitive ability influences the dynamics of cooperation and (3) identify the relationship between cognitive ability and indicators of fitness (acquisition of dominance, coalition partners, condition, reproductive success)


  • Dr Alex Thornton, University of Exeter
  • Dr Matthew Bell, University of Edinburgh