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Sunday, April 30, 2023

The secrets of cooperation

Bob Holmes
Originally published 29 MAR 23

Here are two excerpts:

Human cooperation takes some explaining — after all, people who act cooperatively should be vulnerable to exploitation by others. Yet in societies around the world, people cooperate to their mutual benefit. Scientists are making headway in understanding the conditions that foster cooperation, research that seems essential as an interconnected world grapples with climate change, partisan politics and more — problems that can be addressed only through large-scale cooperation.

Behavioral scientists’ formal definition of cooperation involves paying a personal cost (for example, contributing to charity) to gain a collective benefit (a social safety net). But freeloaders enjoy the same benefit without paying the cost, so all else being equal, freeloading should be an individual’s best choice — and, therefore, we should all be freeloaders eventually.

Many millennia of evolution acting on both our genes and our cultural practices have equipped people with ways of getting past that obstacle, says Muthukrishna, who coauthored a look at the evolution of cooperation in the 2021 Annual Review of Psychology. This cultural-genetic coevolution stacked the deck in human society so that cooperation became the smart move rather than a sucker’s choice. Over thousands of years, that has allowed us to live in villages, towns and cities; work together to build farms, railroads and other communal projects; and develop educational systems and governments.

Evolution has enabled all this by shaping us to value the unwritten rules of society, to feel outrage when someone else breaks those rules and, crucially, to care what others think about us.

“Over the long haul, human psychology has been modified so that we’re able to feel emotions that make us identify with the goals of social groups,” says Rob Boyd, an evolutionary anthropologist at the Institute for Human Origins at Arizona State University.


Reputation is more powerful than financial incentives in encouraging cooperation

Almost a decade ago, Yoeli and his colleagues trawled through the published literature to see what worked and what didn’t at encouraging prosocial behavior. Financial incentives such as contribution-matching or cash, or rewards for participating, such as offering T-shirts for blood donors, sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, they found. In contrast, reputational rewards — making individuals’ cooperative behavior public — consistently boosted participation. The result has held up in the years since. “If anything, the results are stronger,” says Yoeli.

Financial rewards will work if you pay people enough, Yoeli notes — but the cost of such incentives could be prohibitive. One study of 782 German residents, for example, surveyed whether paying people to receive a Covid vaccine would increase vaccine uptake. It did, but researchers found that boosting vaccination rates significantly would have required a payment of at least 3,250 euros — a dauntingly steep price.

And payoffs can actually diminish the reputational rewards people could otherwise gain for cooperative behavior, because others may be unsure whether the person was acting out of altruism or just doing it for the money. “Financial rewards kind of muddy the water about people’s motivations,” says Yoeli. “That undermines any reputational benefit from doing the deed.”