The more people rely on their intuitions, the more cooperative they become, study shows

Sep 19, 2012

It's an age old question: Why do we do good? What makes people sometimes willing to put "We" ahead of "Me?" Perhaps our first impulse is to be selfish, and cooperation is all about reining in greed. Or maybe cooperation happens spontaneously, and too much thinking gets in the way.

Harvard scientists are getting closer to an answer, showing that people's first response is to cooperate and that stopping to think encourages selfishness.

David Rand, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Psychology, Joshua Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology, and Martin Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and of Biology, and Director of the Program for , have published their findings in the September 20 issue of Nature. They recruited thousands of participants to play a "public goods game" in which it's "Me" vs. "Us." Subjects were put into small groups and faced with a choice: Keep the money you've been given, or contribute it into a common pool that grows and benefits the whole group. Hold onto the money and you come out ahead, but the group does best when everyone contributes.

The researchers wanted to know whether people's first impulse is cooperative or selfish. To find out, they started by looking at how quickly different people made their choices, and found that faster deciders were more likely to contribute to the common good.

Next they forced people to go fast or to stop and think, and found the same thing: Faster deciders tended to be more cooperative, and the people who had to stop and think gave less.

Finally, the researchers tested their by manipulating people's mindsets. They asked some people to think about the benefits of before choosing how much to contribute. Others were asked to think about the virtues of careful reasoning. Once again, intuition promoted cooperation, and did the opposite.

While some might interpret the results as suggesting that cooperation is "innate" or "hard-wired," if anything they highlight the role of experience. People who had better opinions of those around them in everyday life showed more cooperative impulses in these experiments, and previous experience with these kinds of studies eroded those impulses.

"In daily life, it's generally in your interest to be cooperative," Rand said. "So we internalize cooperation as the right way to behave. Then when we come into unusual environments, where incentives like reputation and sanctions are removed, our first response is to keep behaving the way we do in normal life. When we think about it, however, we realize that this is one of those rare situations where we can be and get away with it."

Unlike many psychology studies, which use small numbers of college students, these experiments tested thousands of people from around the world using Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online labor market that's becoming an increasingly popular tool for social science research.

According to Rand, the findings highlight an interesting and counterintuitive truth – that careful thought and reflection have a dark side. But is reflection always bad?

"When it's 'Me' vs. 'Us,' our intuitions seem to work well. That's what's going on here," explains Joshua Greene. "But what happens when have different moral intuitions, for example, about abortion or raising taxes? When intuitions clash—when it's the values of 'Us' vs. 'Them'—reasoning and reflection may be our best hope for reconciling our differences."

"Over millions of years we've evolved the capacity for cooperation," explains Martin Nowak. "These psychological experiments examine the causes of cooperation on a shorter timescale, on the order of seconds. Both perspectives are essential as we face global problems which require cooperation on a massive scale. We need to understand where comes from historically and how best to make it happen here and now."

Explore further: LEGO bricks build better mathematicians

Related Stories

Mistakes explain 'cooperative' behaviour

May 19, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- How people behave in economic games, where they can choose to be selfish or cooperative, can be explained more easily by 'mistakes' than wanting others to succeed, Oxford researchers find.

Intuitive thinking may influence belief in God

Sep 20, 2011

Intuition may lead people toward a belief in the divine and help explain why some people have more faith in God than others, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

The positives of playing favorites

Jul 09, 2012

Though often portrayed as unfair or a character flaw, in many instances “playing favorites can be a winning strategy,” a Harvard researcher says.

Recommended for you

Pop music heritage contributes to the formation of identity

1 hour ago

The musical rebels of the past are today's museum pieces. Pop music is increasingly penetrating heritage institutions such as museums and archives. That is apparent from the PhD research of Arno van der Hoeven. On Thursday ...

Helping older employees stay in their jobs

1 hour ago

Factors that can hinder older employees from continuing to work include workload, a poor memory and the pensionable age-effect. The Job-Exposure Matrix is a newly developed instrument that provides an easy way to chart the ...

Explainer: What is a small private online course?

3 hours ago

If you have studied an online course at a university over the past couple of decades, you've probably already experienced a SPOC, or Small Private Online Course. SPOC is a new term for an old concept, which appears to be frustrating members of the distance edu ...

User comments : 10

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

DavidW
1 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2012
"Harvard scientists are getting closer to an answer, showing that people's first response is to cooperate and that stopping to think encourages selfishness."

The answer is the truth. None of us can change the past and therefore the truth is we are equal. When we accept the truth of reality then our choices are for we instead of me.
defactoseven
1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2012
I know Harvard probably trumps my Yale education, but I can't see anything but ambiguity and malformed structure in this study. Personally, almost every conclusion is totally contrary to my experience. I am either living in a different world than these people or it is terribly flawed. The whole concept of participation is innately ambiguous.

Intuition = me first - bad choices based on subjective impulse
Reflection = deduction, reasoning, more objective, CHOOSING to be cooperative and less selfish.

Someone guide me through this if I am missing something. I think this is bogus.
izen
1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2012
@defactoseven
That's because you've *thought* about it. There was the intellectual appraisal. This is precisely the point - you were not in the experiential event of being asked to quickly decide, in-situ.
All the same, you may have been one of those who's intuition was very 'me-based'. But you are not in the majority, so it seems anyway.
defactoseven
not rated yet Sep 21, 2012
@defactoseven
That's because you've *thought* about it. There was the intellectual appraisal. This is precisely the point - you were not in the experiential event of being asked to quickly decide, in-situ.
All the same, you may have been one of those who's intuition was very 'me-based'. But you are not in the majority, so it seems anyway.


Thank you...
defactoseven
not rated yet Sep 21, 2012
izen:

Would "knee-jerk" "first impression" or "off the cuff" reactions be considered intuitive with regard to this study? Or are they actually able to separate reactions from intuition? I just found myself in a rather telling "reaction" which I can't see as separate from intuition. I am truly being honest here, it's laughable that this happened:

As I read your comment I came upon the 'me-based' statement and immediately without thought, reacted. My cursor went to the down tick star and I clicked it... without thinking. It didn't take me but a split second to realize "think" about that reaction to realize you are right or at least that your comment was logical. So I spent 3 minutes trying to figure out how I might negate that down tick or at least up tick it, which I found I cannot. -- continued --
defactoseven
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2012
First, I reacted based on intuition without thinking, then I thought for a moment reasoning, and made the decision that you had made a logical assumption. I think intuition is closer to instinct than it is to advanced thought. But I am also assuming that reaction may be an indicator of intuition.

I hope this is still an open subject as I would like a response. I'm still chuckling over my reaction. Sorry for the down tick.
izen
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2012
:) Maybe you figured I was attacking you? I wasn't, but as I wrote it I wondered if it might be construed in that way - its like calling you selfish or something. Anyway, great question. Answer - don't know. What I *do* think is that such open curiosity and honesty stands shoulders over altruistic 'intuition' - whatever that actually is - and you shouldn't worry about it!! Okay, that was my instant response. Now I'll have a think about it! The final paragraphs on the piece here are interesting in light of your points. I'll post back if I think of anything else. Thanks for responding! (I don't see any down ticks, btw. I'd never have known!...)
izen
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2012
After thought - first, I wasn't disagreeing with your first comment, I thought it was a really good point - I was really only aiming from another direction. But these words 'intuition', 'instinct', etc., are vague. Like 'ego', we only assume we know what we're referring to. Which isn't very scientific, imo. Spiders apparently build their webs by 'instinct' - some instinct! Extraordinary in fact, given they don't even have a brain. But I do agree with the proposition insofar as, in my experience, there is a greater truth emerging from instant responses than considered ones - considered ones have time to engage 'belief', etc. Freudian slips, etc, are telling re what's actually going on - which could partly be your point. But, despite that, I'd place no 'value' judgement on either. What you've highlighted, imo, is that we're not clear about what we're talking about. Our 'definitions' are waaaay too vague. I have no idea what 'intuition' actually is. Do the researchers?
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2012
I have no idea what 'intuition' actually is. Do the researchers?
In observable reality the things are predictable with simulation: the system of three or more gravitational bodies is difficult to predict with formal math, but when you run the simulation, then you get the answer. IMO human brain runs such a simulations too: it sends the solitons (electrochemically powered acoustic neural brain spikes aka solitons) along neurons and integrates their signal in synaptic connections. If two or more spikes arrive to single synapse at single moment, it may increase its potential up to level, the synapse opens and becomes conductive for another spikes. In this way the human brain runs the collision simulation all the time, just not in space, but in time. The successful runs open the conductive paths gradually and these path become preferred for conducting of particular configurations of spikes - they represent the invented and learned solutions or reflexion paths.
izen
not rated yet Sep 22, 2012
So the fact our species operated within 'group-think' for survival reasons for over 90% of our existence, and 'selfish' mode would arise only in high-stress personally dangerous situations or, more recently, individualistic society, ratifies these findings? I'd like to see tests done during live brain scans? But I still think the definitions are too vague for anything specific or decisive to be said here - its just interesting.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.