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How decision making affects cooperation

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Normally when we think of collaborative behavior, we think of selfless acts.  Indeed, only recently I looked at a study that had explored how motivation affects our willingness to collaborate with someone.

It suggested that if our seemingly selfless act doesn’t actually cost us anything, then we’re much less likely to cooperate with one another.

A second study has explored the conditions required for successful cooperation still further, and has focused this time on how we gather information about our peers, and what our methods then do to subsequent attempts to cooperate with them.

How cooperation evolved

Of course, the nature of cooperation has long fascinated researchers who have pondered how such behavior can evolve in a world ruled by natural selection.  How can cooperative behavior triumph when free-loaders can behave selfishly and take advantage of the collective efforts of the group?

The study set out to analyze this question through the lens of our decision making process.

“The question that our research tries to answer is: ‘How do people make decisions when their actions can affect the welfare of others?’ More specifically, we want to know how people determine their behaviour when they have to cooperate in groups,” the authors say.

As is common in game theory, we tend to cooperate with others until we see them acting selfishly.  In group situations we can gauge this by looking at how people cooperate with one another.

The experiment saw a couple of hundred people asked to make decisions that would impact their earning levels.  The participants were placed into groups whereby they could choose to take the selfish option and increase their own earnings, or an option that was more cooperative and beneficial to all members of their group.

Between making decisions, each person could gather up information on how their team mates were behaving.  They could learn, for instance, what choices they had made, and whether those choices had paid off.

“From previous research we know that people differ quite strongly in what kind of information they are interested in: some people are ‘majority-oriented’ and tend to look at the behaviour of the majority in their group, whereas others are ‘success-oriented’ and try to find out what kind of behaviour pays off best. In this experiment we studied how these different types of people behave when they have to cooperate in groups,” the researchers say.

“It turns out that behaviour in groups of success-oriented people was much more selfish than groups of majority-oriented people. As a consequence, the people in the majority-oriented groups tended to earn more money in the experiment since they cooperated more,” they conclude.

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