We Are Not Always Meant to Work Together

Collaboration doesn't come easily to everyone, and maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Unfortunately, if you're overly cooperative, others might take advantage of you. Are you a cooperative person? Humans have achieved remarkable levels of collaboration, from teaming up to hunt large animals to constructing massive infrastructures. Examples of successful cooperation are everywhere. The history of human progress is the history of collaboration!

Collaboration and Shared Resources

Or is it? Let's put it to the test. Imagine that you and four others, none of whom you have ever met or will meet again, are each given $10. Each of you must decide how much to contribute to a common fund. You can put in the entire $10, nothing at all (keeping your $10), or any amount in between. So can everyone else. You will make your choices independently and without consulting others.

After everyone decides, the money in the common fund will be doubled. Each dollar will become two. Then, and here's the catch, whatever is in the fund will be divided equally (regardless of how much each person contributed) among you and the other four people.

If everyone puts the entire $10 in the fund, the $50 there will be doubled to $100. So you (and everyone else) will get $20 back. You double your investment! That's what cooperation means.

But wait. If everyone else puts in $10, why should you contribute? If you keep your $10 while the others contribute $10 each, there will be $40 in the fund. Doubled to $80 and divided by five, that means you will get $16. Added to the $10 you kept, you will have $26. That's better than $20! This is called free riding because you benefit from others without contributing.

So, what would you do?

The analysis of logical (but selfish) behavior is called game theory, and it is highly relevant. In this case, it predicts that no one will contribute anything. For each dollar you put in, you only get 40 cents back, so you lose 60 cents. But for each dollar others put in, you gain 40 cents at no cost. So everyone wants everyone else to contribute everything without contributing anything themselves. The prediction, known as a Nash equilibrium in honor of Nobel Prize winner John Nash, is that no one will contribute, and the opportunity to double everyone's money will be wasted.

This model is known as a public goods game, and it has been studied in many behavioral labs worldwide. It captures the essence of the problem of contributing to a good that will be enjoyed by a group, whether it's supporting a new elevator in your old apartment building or paying taxes to fund roads, hospitals, and safe streets.

In those experiments, many people voluntarily contribute, at least in part, which goes against rational (selfish) behavior. However, only a few individuals consistently contribute, and when the game is played multiple times with the same participants, cooperation usually falls apart towards the end since there's no penalty for those who don't contribute.

Collaboration and Instinct

Why do some people still contribute when it isn't rational to do so? Some research in psychology suggests cooperation might be instinctive for humans. That is, our first, ingrained reaction is to cooperate, and only with deliberate thought are we tempted by the benefits of free riding.

This is a positive, heartwarming view of human behavior, reminiscent of Rousseau's noble savage. The evidence for this was that in a series of experiments with public goods games (Rand, Greene, and Nowak 2012), cooperative decisions were faster than decisions to keep the money. Since instinctive decisions tend to be quick, researchers concluded that decisions to cooperate are generally instinctive. Further, putting participants under time pressure by giving them a time limit, which should increase instinctive behavior, led to larger contributions.

The problem with this view is that it might be overly optimistic. First, other researchers pointed out that even if instinctive decisions tend to be quick, that doesn't mean every quick decision is instinctive (Myrseth and Wollbrant, 2017). There are various reasons why a decision might be quick, such as having a clear preference for one option over the other (these are called psychometric effects in psychology). Also, comparing the speeds of decisions across people says little about instinct, as some people are naturally faster than others. And for both reasons, some people might not feel pressured even with a time limit.

Second, psychology isn't an exact science. Human behavior is noisy. Sometimes, you get lucky (or unlucky) in your experiments and get results that can't be replicated later. A large-scale, multi-lab replication study (Bouwmeester et al., 2017) was unable to reproduce the original findings.

Is Cooperation Instinctive? It Depends.

So what is happening? As is often the case, simple answers like "cooperation is instinctive" are appealing, but the reality is more complicated. In a study published a few years ago (Alós-Ferrer and Garagnani 2020), we measured people's prosociality, meaning how much they care about others' welfare compared to their own. We also had the same people play a public goods game under time pressure, but using a method that ensured even fast individuals would feel pressured. The result was that cooperation was more instinctive for more prosocial individuals, but free riding was more instinctive for less prosocial individuals.

This means that some people are naturally cooperative, and some are not. Especially for collaboration in groups, there might be many of the latter. For example, other studies have shown that many people might be generous toward others but selfish toward groups.

It also means that cooperation isn't innate. We are probably not born with a cooperative or non cooperative attitude. For humans, instinct isn't just about the deeply ingrained behaviors we are born with. We train our instinct over our lives (so driving a car can become very instinctive), and what becomes instinctive depends on your social environment, your culture, and your personal experiences.

The Benefits of Not Being (Too) Cooperative

We would all be better off if we were all very cooperative (as in the public goods game). But that won't happen. There will always be freeloaders because the temptation is strong. If you naturally like to cooperate, they will exploit you.

We shouldn't expect cooperation in groups to happen automatically, or be surprised when it doesn't. That is, after all, why we have tax laws instead of voluntary contributions, and why our politicians argue over how high those taxes should be. And maybe it isn't so bad that cooperation doesn't happen naturally all the time. An example of cooperation in markets is when companies agree to raise their prices to increase their profits rather than competing with each other. This is called collusion, and it is illegal in many countries because it harms consumers. Similarly, cooperation among criminals ("don't talk to the police!") harms innocent citizens.

So, are you a cooperator? Sure! If you say "yes," you might be exploited, potentially causing harm if you collaborate with the wrong individuals. If your answer is "no," you might be taking advantage of others and preventing groups from benefiting from joint opportunities. Your answer should probably be, "It depends." Luckily, real life is less extreme than a public goods game and offers you many chances to build trust with others and decide when to collaborate and when to be cautious and protect yourself.

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