The Cooperative Instinct

A new study finds that our first, quickest impulse is to cooperate, not compete.

by Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas

So here’s the game. I give you some money—let’s say $10—and tell you the following: you’re playing with three other people that you don’t know and may never meet, and each of you have been given the same amount to start with. You are all invited to contribute any amount of your money to a common pool. Once everyone has contributed, the game doubles the amount in the pool, then gives each player an equal portion of that doubled amount. What do you do? How much do you put in?

At one extreme, you could put in $0.01, cross your fingers that others put in their entire pots, then walk away with $24.99—your portion of the pot ($15) plus the leftover cash from your original $10. At the other, you could put in your entire $10, hope for the same from others, and walk away with $20. It’s called the Public Goods Game, and is a common technique for measuring cooperation in the field of neuroeconomics. (The more cooperative approach, by the way, is to put in your whole $10.)

According to a series of studies published in in the September 20 issue of Nature magazine by Harvard researchers David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene, and Martin A. Nowak, the amount you decide to contribute depends on how quickly you make the decision. Quicker decisions, they argue, are based on intuition, while longer ones are based on careful thinking.

The researchers considered this age-old question: Are people intuitively selfish but able to behave cooperatively with deliberate reflection, or are people intuitively cooperative, but capable of selfishness with further thought and reflection? To get at this, the researchers examined which kinds of behaviors happen faster: the cooperative kind or the selfish kind.

Running the Public Goods Game with more than 1,000 people, both online and in laboratory settings, the researchers showed that cooperative behaviors happen faster. “Although the cold logic of self-interest is seductive, our first impulse is to cooperate,” they concluded.

In a first analysis, data showed that people who took less than 10 seconds to decide how much to give gave approximately 15 percent more to the common pool than people who took longer than 10 seconds.

In a second study, the experimenters instructed half of the people to decide how much to contribute in less than 10 seconds, and half to think about their decision for at least 10 seconds, and then decide how much to give. Again, the ‘thinkers’ gave less to the pool.

Finally, the experimenters asked one group of people to write about a time when intuition led to the right decision or when careful reasoning led them astray, and a second group to write about a time when careful reasoning led them to the right decision or when intuition led them astray—then all the participants played the Public Goods Game. The result? Those people who wrote about good decisions from intuition or bad decisions from careful reasoning gave more money to the pool.

These studies provide strong evidence that people, on average, have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively—and with continued reasoning, become more likely to behave selfishly. The authors caution that their data do not prove that cooperation is more innate than selfishness at a genetic level—but they point out that life experience suggests that, in most cases, cooperation is advantageous, so that’s generally not a bad place to start by default.

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.

To read more articles on cooperation research, visit our Survival of the Kindest page.

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful’s partners. To view the original article, click here.

This web extra provides additional information related to an article titled, “Kindness Evolution,” which appeared in the August 2013 issue of Mindful magazine.