Why Cooperate?

A short piece in the New York Times by Harvard economists and Yale psychologists has a suggestion that may surprise you – or maybe not – about people’s motivation to cooperate.

The authors focus on the “tragedy of the commons” which is the situation “where individuals acting independently and rationally according to each’s self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource.”

They argue that for people faced with a choice that would benefit them at the expense of the whole group, reputational concerns generally have greater impact than material incentives.

They write, “When your choices are observable by others, it makes it possible for good actions to benefit your reputation.  Similarly, norms make you feel you’re expected to cooperate in a given situation, and that people may think poorly of you if they learn you are not doing your part.”

By contrast, they argue that material incentives often are too small to make a difference and that getting material benefits “muddies the reputational benefits of cooperating.”

These are very broad generalizations and, even in their own terms, the effects depend on the amount of the respective benefits and costs.

Moreover, the authors don’t discuss other possible motivations, such as a desire to act consistently with one’s values and self-image.

Consider a Concrete Example

To test the authors’ theory, consider what affects your decisions about what cars you choose.

Consider the common need to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.  If all drivers used more fuel-efficient cars, that would benefit us all.  Yet there seems to be a taste in the US for less efficient cars despite their effect on the environment.

When gas prices go up dramatically and stay high for a while, I think there is a trend toward buying more efficient cars.   When the prices recede, we seem to return to choosing less efficient cars.

If you have a relatively efficient car, how much of your choice was due to your financial self-interest and how much was due to a desire to be seen as environmentally-sensitive (or to gain some other positive reputation)?   Did you choose that car because it makes you feel good because you are acting consistently with your values?

Conversely, if you have a relatively inefficient car (and you don’t have to regularly haul around lots of people or stuff), how much more would you have to pay to acquire it or fuel it before you would consider getting a more efficient car?  Do you care if others view you negatively for being wasteful?  Do you feel that you get a positive reputation for having a bigger car?   Never mind how others think of you, did you choose that car because it makes you feel good about yourself?

How do you think that others in your social circles view these choices? What about various segments of the American population?

Getting back to the NYT article, do you agree with the authors’ general theory?


2 thoughts on “Why Cooperate?”

  1. Thanks for your helpful comment, Jean.

    Studies like those reported in the NYT article are useful for demonstrating that people have non-monetary interests, which sometimes are more important to them than monetary interests.

    This is surprising and challenging for some lawyers and law students. Some of my students struggled with playing lawyers in simulations in which they represented parties who wanted to be more generous than they “needed” to be. Sometimes, this “generosity” was not oriented (only or primarily) to gaining a good relationship or reputation.

    People often are motivated to act like the kind of people they see themselves as being, regardless of financial self-interest or others’ perceptions of them. Indeed, they may feel uncomfortable if pressed to be less generous (or perhaps, in their minds, as being less “fair”).

    For example, some husbands in simulated divorce negotiations had strong feelings about the kind of parents that they wanted to be and they would have felt bad to provide smaller settlements, even if their wives would have accepted less generous agreements.

    Similarly, some potential business partners wanted to do what they felt was the right thing because it reflected who they saw themselves as being, even though they might have bargained for a “better” deal in a partnership agreement.

    In a larger social setting similar the one involving individuals’ choices about getting more or less efficient cars, I remember living in California during the drought of the 1970s. Many people were very careful not to run water in the sink or flush the toilet unnecessarily even though no one else would know how much water they used. If they wasted water, they would have felt uncomfortable seeing themselves as irresponsible citizens who didn’t live up to their own values.

    I haven’t read the research summarized in the NYT article and perhaps it focuses on more than the two motivations (of financial self-interest and reputation) and considers the reality that people often have multiple motivations for a given act.

    For DR practitioners, teachers, and scholars, I think it is important to recognize and support parties’ interests in acting consistent with their own positive values and self-images – in combination with their other interests.

  2. I definitely agree and I think this is important stuff. Look at how people who own Prius and other similar cars need/want to have those logos so everyone can see how environmentally conscious they are. Our psychological motivations are much broader than mere financial incentives. And, it is also true that financial incentives can actually backfire, seemingly allowing people to engage in conduct they would have otherwise thought inappropriate. One study showed that when a daycare imposed fees on parents late to pick up kids, the rate of late pickups increased.

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