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Altruism in social networks: Evidence for a ‘kinship premium’


Oliver Curry, British Academy Centenary Project (Lucy to Language), Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, 64 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PN, UK (e-mail:


Why and under what conditions are individuals altruistic to family and friends in their social networks? Evolutionary psychology suggests that such behaviour is primarily the product of adaptations for kin- and reciprocal altruism, dependent on the degree of genetic relatedness and exchange of benefits, respectively. For this reason, individuals are expected to be more altruistic to family members than to friends: whereas family members can be the recipients of kin and reciprocal altruism, friends can be the recipients of reciprocal altruism only. However, there is a question about how the effect of kinship is implemented at the proximate psychological level. One possibility is that kinship contributes to some general measure of relationship quality (such as ‘emotional closeness’), which in turn explains altruism. Another possibility is that the effect of kinship is independent of relationship quality. The present study tests between these two possibilities. Participants (N= 111) completed a self-report questionnaire about their willingness to be altruistic, and their emotional closeness, to 12 family members and friends at different positions in their extended social networks. As expected, altruism was greater for family than friends, and greater for more central layers of the network. Crucially, the results showed that kinship made a significant unique contribution to altruism, even when controlling for the effects of emotional closeness. Thus, participants were more altruistic towards kin than would be expected if altruism was dependent on emotional closeness alone – a phenomenon we label a ‘kinship premium’. These results have implications for the ongoing debate about the extent to which kin relations and friendships are distinct kinds of social relationships, and how to measure the ‘strength of ties’ in social networks.