Human Nature

Are We Cooperative or Competitive? Our View Shapes the Economy

Group membership, kindness, and social outcomes

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Editor’s Note: In an effort to center New Economic Thinking in the discussion of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve curated a list of Evonomics articles relevant to this moment—including this one. Check out the full list here.

2006 February 15

By Sandra Aamodt

From mowing an elderly neighbor’s lawn to donating money for disaster victims ten thousand miles away, people are one of the most cooperative species on the planet. We aid not only our relatives but also strangers—or at least some of them. From an evolutionary perspective, this behavior is puzzling because helping people who aren’t related to us has clear costs and uncertain benefits. Behavioral ecologists think that cooperation arose as a competitive strategy, as groups of cooperating people can gain big advantages in competition with less-cooperative groups, as Stuart West explains.

The interesting question is not so much whether the “natural state” of our species is cooperation or competition—we clearly have both tendencies in abundance—as how they interact and which conditions promote one approach or the other. Agustin Fuentes looks at human violence and concludes that both empathy and aggression are part of our adaptive toolkit. One of the most intense forms of human conflict is large-scale warfare, which illustrates the principle that successful competition requires extensive cooperation within the group.

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The ultimate cause of human kindness seems to be that nice people have more success in love than nasty ones (contrary to popular belief). But the more immediate motivation for most of us is empathy, the ability to understand and care about other people’s feelings. Caring about others is part of our mammalian heritage, and humans take this ability to a high level. Helping other people seems to be our default approach, in the sense that we’re more likely to do it when we don’t have time to think a situation through before acting. After a conflict, we and other primates—including our famously aggressive relatives, the chimpanzees—have many ways to reconcile and repair relationships.

How we view our cooperative versus competitive tendencies has important practical implications for how we arrange our social landscape. Is a society without strong government prone to anarchy and exploitation, as Hobbes claimed? Or should we trust the libertarians who believe that the unimpeded pursuit of self-interest is the root of human progress? Neither view lines up well with our knowledge of early human history. The hunter-gatherer tribes that anthropologists have studied rely on a social system called radical egalitarianism to regulate cooperation and competition. People who refuse to contribute to the common good or who take advantage of others are disrespected, expelled from the group—or in some cases even killed.

Reputation signals, including gossip, are critical to the enforcement of good behavior in  this system, and probably also in modern societies. The major weakness of cooperative social systems is the free-rider problem: cheaters can gain advantages through other people’s efforts without making any substantial contribution of their own. One way to discourage such behavior is to punish those who are caught cheating. Most of us are offended by perceived unfairness. Across cultures, people have a strong tendency to name, shame, and retaliate against cheaters—at some cost to themselves and even if they were not directly hurt by the offensive behavior.

As a result, much of the time we act fairly toward people we may never see again. We give up concrete potential benefits to ourselves and our families in exchange for abstract gains in reputation and moral standing. This behavior requires us to override our more ancient social instincts to care for our families above all, and it depends critically on culture. Around the world, fairness to strangers is more common among people who are familiar with a market-based economy, which reinforces the importance of treating people according to these abstract moral rules, reports Joseph Henrich.

Not everyone may be thought to deserve good treatment, however. Susan Fiske describes why we’re inclined to view people outside our own group as less than human and suggests ways to increase our concern for others by expanding our moral circle. To implement diversity programs effectively—or indeed to decide whether the deliberate pursuit of diversity is a good idea—we must understand how people draw boundaries between “us” and “them,” as well as the consequences of our tendency to divide the social world up in this way. The good news is that these boundaries can change with experience, bringing more people onto our team, especially when we must rely on them to help us solve a problem or win a contest. In this way, competition can make us individually more cooperative.

Our team provides an important part of our identity, but it’s complicated because we are all members of more than one team. At various times, I may think of myself as a scientist, a woman, or a sailor—and act differently depending on which group membership is most active in my mind at the moment. For example, one study showed that women did better on a math test after being reminded that they were students at an elite college than they did after checking a box labeled female. A situation as simple as being the only member of a minority group in the room can emphasize that identity enough to influence performance.

Cooperation and competition are the two faces of group membership. We can’t prevent ourselves from identifying with our teams, but we can use our understanding of this process to reduce its negative consequences. Our abilities to expand the size of our group and choose among multiple identities provide us with the behavioral flexibility to negotiate the conflicting needs and values of the people who make up our complex social landscape.

Originally published here.

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