Cooperative Instinct, Reflective Self-Interest

David Rand

Harvard scientists, led by postdoctoral researcher David Rand found that volunteers who were asked to contribute to the greater good at their own expense at first tended toward generous and cooperative behavior, but upon reflection, they chose self-interest.
Evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak and psychology professor Joshua Greene collaborated with Rand in the study published in Nature .

Martin Nowak

Rand, Nowak, and Greene gave money to volunteers for use in games where they could earn more, depending on choices about cooperating with others.

The team found that people acted most generously when they made immediate decisions about how much to contribute, or were asked to report a time when their intuitions and emotions guided them to a good decision.

When volunteers took more time to consider decisions, or were asked to remember a time they benefitted because rational thinking or when an emotional response led them to an adverse decision, they contributed less to the common pool of money.

Joshua Greene

In one situation, four participants were given 40 cents each and told that they could contribute as much money as desired to the common pool, which would be doubled and then divided equally among the four people.

People decided most quickly on their contribution strategy were more willing to contribute than those who considered the choice for more than 10 seconds.

When researchers forced some volunteers to decide a strategy rapidly and others to wait at least 10 seconds before deciding, they again observed that those who decided most quickly contributed most.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate and author of the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which examines the two cognitive systems and the role they play in decision-making.

The researchers suggest that people’s intuitive responses are associated with what they have learned to benefit them, through experiences in various situations.

They asked participants if their everyday interactions with others were typically cooperative or uncooperative.
Those who reported having mainly cooperative interactions made quick decisions to contribute more and gave less when they had more time to ponder the scenario.
In contrast, those who reported uncooperative interactions in daily life gave the same amount when they made fast vs more deliberate decisions.

These studies could suggest policies or incentives to encourage desired behavior.
One complication that researchers consider is that a monetary reward or a fine is introduced, people may begin to ignore their first response and weigh the costs and benefits.
This delay can lead to people acting more in self-interest, and less for the common good.

An example of this paradox is seen in a study of Israeli day care programs.
Monetary fines were levied when parents picked up their children late, and the number of parents who arrived late increased rather than decreased.

This finding is consistent with punishment’s lower efficacy in motivating behavior.

-*In which work situations do you favor cooperation with colleagues?
-*When do you find that “enlightened self-interest” is the more prudent approach at work?

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Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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3 thoughts on “Cooperative Instinct, Reflective Self-Interest

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