(PhysOrg.com) -- Two people can learn to cooperate with each other intuitively without communication or any conscious intention to cooperate. But this process breaks down in groups of three or more.
A study by members of the University of Leicesters School of Psychology and Department of Economics set out to explain how two people learn to cooperate without even knowing that they are interacting with each other. In larger groups, explicit communication is needed to coordinate actions.
Professor Andrew Colman, Dr Briony Pulford, Dr David Omtzigt, and Dr Ali al-Nowaihi carried out the study, due to appear in the journal Cognitive Psychology. The research, funded by the British Academy, has helped to explain the mechanisms of intuitive cooperation.
The researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments with groups of various sizes and developed a mathematical model of the intuitive learning process. Experimental participants received financial gains or losses after pressing one of two buttons on a computer, unaware that the outcome depended not on their own choice but on their neighbours. It turned out that after many repetitions of the game, gains gradually exceeded losses in groups of two but not in three-person and larger groups.
Professor Colman said: Heres a simple example that shows the basic idea. Every morning, Alf chooses whether to give his son raisins or cheese sticks to snack on during the day. Similarly, Beth chooses between popcorn or peanuts for her daughters snack. The children are friends and always share their snacks with each other at school, although their parents know nothing about this. Alfs son is allergic to peanuts and gets ill if he eats any of his friends peanuts, and Beths daughter is allergic to cheese and gets ill if she eats any of her friends cheese sticks. The upshot is that although each parents snack choice has no effect whatsoever on his or her own childs wellbeing, in each case one option leaves the other parents child well and its parent happy, whereas the alternative option makes the other child ill and upsets its parent.
The choices of Alf and Beth govern each others fates and, in the game of life, while two people may develop an understanding or work intuitively together this scenario is easily distorted once a third person becomes involved. Without effective planning and ground rules, even the best of working relationships between two people can become undone once a third is involved.
Married couples or pairs of business partners may be able to rely on this type of intuitive cooperation, to an extent, but larger groups need explicit communication and planning. Mechanisms need to be put in place to facilitate it. Intuitive cooperation is really a case of twos company, but threes a crowd.
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