Weber JM, Murnighan JK.
J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008;95(6):1340-1353.
Groups and organizations face a fundamental problem: They need cooperation but their members have incentives to free ride. Empirical research on this problem has often been discouraging, and economic models suggest that solutions are unlikely or unstable. In contrast, the authors present a model and 4 studies that show that an unwaveringly consistent contributor can effectively catalyze cooperation in social dilemmas. The studies indicate that consistent contributors occur naturally, and their presence in a group causes others to contribute more and cooperate more often, with no apparent cost to the consistent contributor and often gain. These positive effects seem to result from a consistent contributor's impact on group members' cooperative inferences about group norms.
From the Discussion:
These findings may also have important practical implications.Should an individual who is joining a new group take the risk and be a CC (Consistent Contributor)? The alternative is to risk being in a group without one.Even though CCs seemed to benefit economically from their actions, they also tended to get relatively little credit for their positive influence, if they got any credit at all. Thus, future research might explore how consistent contributions can be encouraged and appreciated and how people can overcome the fears that are naturally associated with becoming a CC.
These data also provide further support for Kelley and Stahelski’s (1970) observation that people consistently under estimate their roles in creating their own social environments. In particular, in the contexts that we studied here, the common characterization of self-interested choices as “strategic” or “rational” appears to be behaviorally inappropriate. Characterizing CCs as suckers may be both misleading and fallacious (see Moore & Loewenstein, 2004,p. 200). If “rational” choices maximize personal outcomes, our data suggest that the choice to be a CC can actually be rational. In this research, we examined CCs’ effects, not their motives or strategies. The data suggest that in these kinds of groups, CCs are saviors rather than suckers.
A serious impediment to the emergence of CCs is the fact that like Axelrod’s (1984) tit-for-tat players, CCs can never do better than the other members of their own groups. This means that CCs cannot do better than their exchange partners: Anyone who cooperates less, even if they ultimately move to mutual cooperation, will obtain better short-term outcomes than CCs. The common tendency to make social comparisons (Festinger, 1954) means that these outcome disparities will probably be noticed. Relatively disadvantageous outcomes are particularly noxious (e.g., Loewenstein, Thompson, & Bazerman, 1989), as is feeling exploited (e.g., Kelley & Stahelski, 1970). Thus, in the absence of formal agreements and binding contracts (which have their own problems; Malhotra & Murnighan, 2002), cooperative action can be exploited. The inclination to self-interested action may even be a common default (Moore & Loewenstein, 2004).
In essence: Economic theories often assume people look out mostly for themselves, cooperating only when punished or cajoled. But even in anonymous experiments, some people consistently cooperate. These people also (i) perform better and (ii) inspire others to cooperate.