The theme of cooperation has been a prominent domain of theory and research within a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, political science, economics, sociology, biology, and psychology. The broad interest in cooperation is not surprising. This theme is intimately linked to the basic views and assumptions regarding human nature and relevant to the functioning of dyads, groups or organizations, and even societies. Although it is often assumed that humankind is rationally self-interested, more recent theorizing and research reveals that human nature is far richer than the concept of selfishness is able to capture.
Cooperation is formally defined by the tendency to maximize outcomes for self and others (“doing well together”). It is often contrasted to competition, the tendency to maximize relative advantage over others (“doing better than others”), and to individualism, the tendency to maximize own outcomes with no or very little regard for others’ outcomes (“doing well for yourself’).
Cooperation and competition have been examined in several paradigms, although such issues have received most direct attention in so-called experimental games, such as the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma Game. This is a situation in which people often face two choices—a cooperative choice, which helps others at some cost to self, and a selfish choice, which harms others but serves self-interest. Cooperation has also been studied in the context of other experimental game situations as well as in real-life contexts. In all of this research, the key question is: How can we promote cooperative behavior that benefits outcomes for all individuals involved? Research has indeed indicates several personality variables and situational variables that affect cooperative behavior.
To begin with, people differ in their tendency to cooperate or not. Some people (prosocials) are simply more strongly inclined to make a cooperative choice than are others (individualists and competitors), who may more likely to make a selfish choice. This variable, called social value orientation, is also relevant to understanding cooperation in everyday life. For example, prosocials are more likely to engage in self-sacrifices in their close relationships, are more likely to help others, and are more likely to make donations to noble causes, such as helping the ill and the poor. Also, prosocials have a greater number of siblings, especially sisters, than people who are more self-oriented. Older people are more likely than younger people to be prosocial. Another personality variable is trust, or differences in the degree to which one believes others are honest and cooperative. People with high trust tend to cooperate more than those with low trust. One reason to do so is because of self-protection. If you do not trust others, you think that you will be the only one to cooperate—which means that the other will indeed take advantage of you. When people with low trust think that they can make a contribution (and know for sure that they will not be exploited or lose their contribution if others do not cooperate), then they tend to be as cooperative as those with high trust.
Clearly, the situation matters a lot too. Generally, people are much more likely to cooperate if the reward for cooperation is greater, or if the costs for noncooperation are greater. Thus, interventions by which cooperation becomes structurally more attractive (reward) and noncooperation less attractive (punishment) are effective means to promoting cooperation. These are policies that governments often adopt to enhance collectively desired behavior (cooperation)—by rewarding cooperative behavior (e.g., subsidizing the use of public transportation to decrease traffic jams) or punishing noncooperative behavior (e.g., penalizing those who use too much water during a water draught).
Cooperation may also be rooted in powerful norms that prescribe rules for dealing with specific interdependence problems and opportunities. Although often implicit, norms tend to exert fairly strong influences, in that they often prescribe choices that protect or enhance group outcomes, which are applicable to a great variety of situations and, when violated, tend to result in disapproval by the observers and guilt in the actor. Also, norms tend to play a somewhat different role in different cultures. For example, in collectivistic cultures one may witness cooperation in response to one another’s needs (e.g., communal relationships), whereas in individualistic cultures one is more likely to witness cooperation through the norm of reciprocity (e.g., exchange relationships).
Tendencies toward cooperation or competition are often inspired by beliefs or actual observations of others’ behaviors. The general rule is that cooperation tends to evoke some cooperation, whereas competition evokes competition. Beliefs regarding others’ cooperation and competition are strongly interrelated with one’s own inclination to cooperate or compete. In the context of dyadic relationships, there is a social-evolutionary basis for the functionality of the so-called tit-for-tat strategy. This strategy, which commences a cooperative choice and subsequently imitates the other person’s previous choice, is one of the most effective means for eliciting stable patterns of mutual cooperation). Indeed, tit-for-tat effectively rewards cooperation by acting cooperatively in turn and punishes noncooperation or competition by acting noncooperatively in turn.
There are important psychological differences between dyadic relationships and larger group relations. To begin with, anonymity increases with group size. That is, unlike dyadic relationships, in larger groups one can almost never be sure who was making a cooperative or competitive choice. Also, with increasing group size, individuals tend to become substantially more pessimistic about the efficacy of their efforts to promote collective outcomes. And individuals tend to feel lower levels of personal responsibility for collective outcomes with increasing group size. For these reasons, individuals tend to exhibit lower levels of cooperation, as groups are larger in size. If groups involve more than eight or ten people, then group size does not seem to matter so much anymore.
- Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
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- Komorita, S. S., & Parks, C. D. (1995). Interpersonal relations: Mixed-motive interaction. Annual Review of Psychology, 46, 183-207.