Human Cooperation: Come on, come on, let’s stick together

Working together is often cited as being one of the things that makes humans special, however it’s not a trait specific to humans. Indeed, we are a social ape and as such, we rely on our societal cooperation to achieve feats greater than the sum of our parts. If you want a plasma TV, you don’t have to mine the materials yourself and suddenly acquire an innate understanding of LED technology. You just go to a shop and buy one – although you will still have to spend over an hour attaching the poorly designed stand while cursing the god-forsaken individual who thought up such a comically bad design. I’m not bitter…

We have all been asked to work with people who either don’t want to help out or, instead, would rather act in an obstructive manner.  We may have even been one of those people. Why, oh why, are people so uncooperative? Following research by Dr Carsten de Dreu, Professor of Social Psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the primary reasons appear to be greed and fear.

His cutting-edge research suggests that an instinctive calculation occurs in our brains when we are cooperating. As Dr Dreu puts it, “people are afraid that their contribution will mainly benefit those people who themselves contribute nothing. That’s why people hold back and invest in self-protection rather than cooperation.” Essentially we are afraid that somebody else will take advantage of our hard effort and we will get nothing in return.

It is this fear of being taken advantage of that sometimes holds humans back from investing in cooperation, choosing instead to protect their own interests. This can seem a bit pessimistic; especially as it is the cooperation between humans that has made our species so successful on this planet. It’s not all selfish doom and gloom though. Ironically, Dr Dreu claims it is in fact this fear among rival groups that tends to result in people working better together.  When faced with a threat, humans are able to motivate themselves to cooperate essentially through fear of loss.

When examining strategies for optimising benefits for ourselves, it seems greed makes us inclined to conserve what we have by refusing to cooperate. Investigations into this effects of greed have found that when people are given the choice to either attack others, engage in self-protection or do nothing, self-protection won out. This might not come as a surprise; after all, the ingrained irrationality that humans have for loss-aversion is well documented. This is presumably the end product of a formulated evolutionary strategy of survival.

Furthermore, the research appears to be in support of genetic evolution, which sees competing strategies – using cooperation and betrayal to maximise the chances of survival – passed on through genetic inheritance. Perhaps, this is further evidence of our altruism being a consequence of evolutionary self-interest, popularised by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. I was particularly reminded of a passage where Dawkins discusses the most effective ways our genes influence us in getting the most for ourselves. He concludes that cooperation is indeed a good strategy. There is a caveat to this strategy though; to not cooperate with those who are likely to stab us in the back or take advantage of our good nature.  Against that background it becomes hard to not see parallels, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

More research is needed, with Dr Dreu opting to look at the role that religion and institutions play in our decisions. He has even considered the use of brain scanners to look at how neurobiology works in the business choices made by managers. “I would love it if a lot of managers were willing to have scans while making decisions about their companies. But then they’d have to come in their masses and that’s not too easy to achieve.”

This is part of a planned wide range of approaches the will consider the influence of legislation, the behaviour of rats and the role of hormones like oxytocin – sometimes called the ‘cuddle hormone’ – in the neuroscience of our cooperation. As the complex picture of human cooperation continues to emerge, I am drawn to Bryan Ferry – ‘Let’s Stick Together’.


Leo Kindred

(Image courtesy of BagoGames)

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