It’s widely believed that cooperation is one of those things that is largely in-built in human beings, yet there remain perceptual differences in how we see helpful acts to one another.
A celebrity helping a charity with their film crew in tow are generally regarded as very differently to a Mother Theresa type character.
A recent study wanted to explore the role motivation plays in cooperation. The researchers developed an ‘envelope game’ to both understand how cooperation evolved and also to explore the motivations of participants.
“For years, people have been asking those of us who study cooperation about the motive that is behind an action,” the researchers say. “The question was how do you get at that – how do you formulate a game theory where the motive makes a difference?”
The traditional cooperation game used by researchers was tinkered a little to invite players to consider the costs involved in cooperation.
“What’s new about this game is that rather than simply deciding whether to cooperate or defect, you now have a new choice, which is whether to open this envelope,” the authors say. “Inside the envelope it tells you the cost of cooperation – it’s either high or low. Basically, the envelope is a metaphor for considering the cost of cooperation before making a decision, and someone who’s very principled about cooperation, or a genuine altruist, they would never open the envelope.”
In other words, the researchers wanted to test whether people would cooperate more with those who were genuinely altruistic, ie they would cooperate without even opening the envelope.
“Previous models of cooperation would predict that people would cooperate with him because he’s doing good,” the authors say. “Those models had a hard time capturing the fact that while he’s cooperated, it’s kind of a dirty form of cooperating. This new model allows us to differentiate because even though he’s cooperating, he’s someone who cooperates while opening the envelope.”
Of course, that’s not to say that only this pure form of cooperation is viable, and indeed, many forms of business collaboration are done regardless of how or why the other party cooperates.
When we cooperate
The results revealed however the circumstances under which we tend to cooperate (or not). For instance, it emerged that cooperation usually requires a low ‘cost’ for both parties. Cooperation only generally tends to occur when the cost rises if by defecting, you impart a high cost on the other player.
So your celebrity doing something charitable is not really costing them much, and therefore people suspect that they would rapidly defect should costs rise, therefore they’re not seen as very cooperative. The opposite tends to be the case for those that are truly cooperative.
“She’s not looking when the cost is low, so when it ends up being very costly, we know we can rely on her,” the paper says. “So Mother Theresa, even if she’s cooperating just as much as Sean Penn, in some sense she’s more trustworthy to cooperate even in cases where it would be really costly for her to do so.”
The authors believe their finding has several implications for the workplace as it gives us an insight into how motivations affect cooperation.
They suggest, for instance, that managers could benefit from this finding by showing their principles more frequently, whether that’s to customers or to employees.