Ever thought the other guy was a loser for giving his all for the team even if others weren’t pulling their weight? A new study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, says that person can influence a group to become more efficient in achieving its goals by making cooperative, collective behaviour seem acceptable and appropriate, and thereby encouraging others to act similarly.
The study, authored by a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and his collaborator at Northwestern University, calls such individuals “consistent contributors” – people who contribute all the time, regardless of others’ choices.
The findings challenge assumptions made by many game and rational choice theorists that people should cooperate very little in situations with a known end-point when there are short-term incentives to act selfishly.
This is a very interesting result. When people act selfishly in a group setting, they often change the behavior of others. There was a nice paper a few years ago that examined what a group did with cheats.
The game was set up in a similar fashion, with people in a group ‘donating’ their money into a pile. The group that donated the most got a bonus back. So, the way to make the most money was to be in a group that donated lots but donate little yourself. That is, freeload off of the rest.
What inevitably happened is that the rest of the group saw what was happening and started hoarding for themselves and the group would eventually fall apart. It was not stable. So what would create a stable group?
What worked was to allow people to sit out a round if they wanted. When people found a freeloader in the group they would all start to withdraw, making the parasite’s gambit worthless. When they came back in, the situation would remain stable until another cheat arose.
People would take a break until the cheat learned their lesson. So a relatively stable situation would develop if the group had a way to effectively deal with freeloaders. Otherwise it fell apart.
Now this study demonstrates that positive behavior can drive a groups approach simply by pushing forward no matter what. When people continue being consistently cooperative, they help everyone in the group.
“But our study found consistently cooperative actors even in places you might least expect them, and when they’re there they seem to set a tone and shape how their fellow group members understand situations,” says Prof. Weber. “Their clear, consistent behavior elicits cooperation, and once you get a few people cooperating with each other, they seem to enjoy cooperating. Groups become more productive, more economically efficient and, anecdotally, people enjoy being a part of them more as a result.”
In settings where there is an advantage to cooperating, groups with consistent cooperators were more successful than those who took a more ‘realistic’ approach. One can see why a social animal would evolve this way. Groups that cooperated would be more likely to survive than those where it was every man for themselves.
Given a level playing field, we want to cooperate with one another. The key is making the playing field level, insuring that the incentives do not push for behavior that is detrimental.