New study shows that people who were encouraged to judge each other's morals cooperated better in groups

April 7, 2017 by Alex Shashkevich
Sociology Professor Robb Willer says a new study shows that moral judgments are a powerful means for encouraging cooperation. Credit: L.A. Cicero

People value their moral reputation to such an extent that they will work to behave well and cooperate with each other rather than risk being judged negatively for their actions, according to new Stanford research.

In a study recently published in Scientific Reports, Stanford sociologist Robb Willer and researchers at the University of South Carolina found that who were given the opportunity to judge each other's morality were more likely to cooperate and trust each other in a than those who could not make such evaluations.

"Generally, people think of negatively," Willer said. "But they are a critical means for encouraging good behavior in society."

Researchers also found that the groups who were allowed to make positive or negative judgments of each other were more trusting and generous toward each other.

In addition, the levels of cooperation in such groups were found to be comparable with groups where monetary punishments were used to promote collaboration within the group, according to the study, titled "The Enforcement of Moral Boundaries Promotes Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior in Groups."

The power of social approval

The idea that moral judgments are fundamental to social order has been around since the late 19th century. But most existing research has looked at moral reasoning and judgments as an internal psychological process.

Few studies so far have examined how costless expressions of liking or disapproval can affect individual behavior in groups, and none of these studies investigated how moral judgments compare with monetary sanctions, which have been shown to lead to increased cooperation as well, Willer said.

As part of the study, Willer and other researchers recruited 54 four-person groups who were randomly put into four conditions: control, interpersonal moral judgments, and two variations of material sanctions.

Each study participant began with 20 monetary units and used a private computer terminal to anonymously interact with people in her or his assigned group. The interaction lasted about an hour and involved a set of exercises in which group members were encouraged to donate their money to a fund that would benefit the group. Participants could see whether someone in their group donated the money or not and they would then be able to either praise their moral actions or enact a monetary sanction, depending on their assigned condition.

The study's results showed that moral judgments appear to be superior to monetary sanctions in achieving cooperation in groups. Although both conditions resulted in a similar level of cooperation, the groups that used money to punish each other's unwanted behaviors led to instances of recrimination, where group members who were punished monetarily retaliated against those who sanctioned them.

Groups that used moral judgments showed lower rates of retaliation and higher levels of generosity, trust and trustworthiness compared to the material sanctions conditions.

"People really care about their moral reputation," Willer said. "So just knowing that you could be criticized keeps cooperation going."

The researchers also found that people were more likely to give their opinion of other than to enact costly monetary sanctions. People gave out monetary sanctions about 36 percent of the time while passing judgments at 74 percent.

But those judgments were largely positive. People praised each other's actions about 60 percent of the time, while negative judgments happened 14 percent of the time, according to the study.

More research needed

The study's results provide an important contribution to the existing body of research on collective action, in which material sanctioning has emerged in the past decade as a prominent solution to achieve cooperation and harmony in groups, Willer said.

While the research focus on material sanctions has produced critical insights into the evolution of sanctioning systems, Willer and his research partners call for more studies to be done on the power of moral because it appears to be a more effective, low-cost way to promote in groups.

"These findings suggest that the motivation to see ourselves, and be seen by others, as moral actors can be every bit as motivating as the drive to maximize material profit," Willer and other co-authors wrote in the report.

Explore further: More order with less judgment: An optimal theory of the evolution of cooperation

More information: Brent Simpson et al. The Enforcement of Moral Boundaries Promotes Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior in Groups, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/srep42844

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17 comments

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gkam
1 / 5 (6) Apr 07, 2017
Yes, "cooperated better in groups " to do what?

Burn others at the stake? Chop off heads?

Destroy the US Senate?

The phenomenon is well known.

Captain Stumpy
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 07, 2017
@STOLEN VALOR LIAR-kam
Yes, "cooperated better in groups " to do what?
Burn others at the stake? Chop off heads?
well, you could try reading what is written:
Here we investigate how the interpersonal expression of positive and negative moral judgments encourages cooperation in groups and prosocial behavior between group members
keyword= prosocial
Groups that used moral judgments showed lower rates of retaliation and higher levels of generosity, trust and trustworthiness compared to the material sanctions conditions
Mark Thomas
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 07, 2017
The existence of mechanisms enabling better cooperation is strongly suggestive of the idea that groups evolve too, otherwise, why bother?

This concept of groups evolving is important because it allows us to put things like altruism into proper context. I suggest that altruism is adaptive, meaning, an evolutionary successful strategy for people living in competing groups. Those groups where people actually care about each other can out-compete more divisive groups. Maybe we should recognize this and encourage it as opposed to labeling kindness to others as some type of failure to perform a proper cost/benefit analysis or religious hangover. If it actually feels good to help another person or living thing, this is NOT self-delusion because there is a real, scientific basis for it. I assert that basis, at least in part, arises from the evolutionary pressures of living in competing groups.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Apr 07, 2017
This concept of groups evolving is important because it allows us to put things like altruism into proper context. I suggest that altruism is adaptive, meaning, an evolutionary successful strategy for people living in competing groups. Those groups where people actually care about each other can out-compete more divisive groups.... If it actually feels good to help another person or living thing...
Marky mark contradicts himself. Helping outsiders gain advantage over members of your tribe (the proper term) feels bad. Its supposed to. Its biological.

With nations its called treason and carries the harshest punishment on the books.

Rome foisted the concepts 'love thy neighbor' and 'turn the other cheek' in their new religion in order to facilitate the incorporation of warring euro tribes.

But they retained all those juicy OT bits explaining how to treat heathens and apostates 'with extreme prejudice'.

Internal amity + external emnity = the human race.
Mark Thomas
3 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2017
"Marky mark contradicts himself. Helping outsiders gain advantage over members of your tribe (the proper term) feels bad."

Mischaracterization and lies are the hallmark of your comments Ottoman.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 08, 2017
"Marky mark contradicts himself. Helping outsiders gain advantage over members of your tribe (the proper term) feels bad."

Mischaracterization and lies are the hallmark of your comments Ottoman.
Please try to be more specific or else people might think youre just posturing.

Wouldnt want that would we?
Dingbone
Apr 09, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Apr 09, 2017
cooperate outside group?
The first social group was the extended family. Families learned to cooperate in forming tribes.

Tribes learned to cooperate to accomplish greater things, like when the mythic 12 tribes cleansed the holy land or when the greek city states set aside their differences to battle persians.

An important innovation for forming alliances was religion. This was a mechanism that could transcend tribal identity by extending it over multiple groups. Greek kings consulted the oracles at delphi who determined when and where conflicts among city states, and who would ally with whom, in the same way that the hebrew prophets led the hordes on their holy mission of rape and pillage.

The pope assumed the role of these prophets and oracles. The papal see is the direct successor of delphi. Rome protected it and derived identity and authority from it exactly as did greece from delphi.

Despite the scope, its still tribalism. Cooperation requires enemies.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2017
So now mark doesnt even comment, he rates. Silent posturing is still posturing no?

Ive got nothing to do at the mo, so lets conjectify a bit. Perhaps its the enemy thing. Marks religion requires that you need to love thine enemies. But it gives many examples where enemies are shunned, persecuted, stoned, exterpated (nice word), and such.

Perhaps this is to make xians feel less guilty about jesus' relatives purging the holy land.

Bigotry with love, that condescending smirk the judgeless wear as they stand and judge you. They judge because only god can judge them.

Anyhoo, enemies dont need to be human but often are. Ancient man exchanged goods and services to gain advantage over the elements, as when exchanging flint for shellfish. But trade occurred less among tribes in direct competition over vital resources. These enemies were the reason that tribes existed in the first place. Deception and crime were the preferred means of peaceful discourse with enemies like these.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2017
"Reed caught up with the Donners and went on with one of his teamsters, Walter Herron. The two shared a horse, and they were able to cover 25–40 miles (40–64 km) per day.[64] The rest of the party rejoined the Donners, but their bad luck continued. Native Americans chased away all of Graves' horses, and another wagon was left behind. With grass in short supply, the cattle spread out more, which allowed the Paiutes to steal 18 more during one evening; and several mornings later, the Paiutes shot another 21."

-Note the injuns didnt just shoot the donners. That would have been wrong. They were their guides after all.

Hungry anyone?
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2017
If altruism is adaptive in an evolutionary sense, and I am strongly asserting that it is, then perhaps religion is adaptive too. IF that is correct, then how ironic is it that the various religions that have so often denied the evolutionary process are themselves the products of it. Most importantly, I conjecture that this is how to begin to put religion on a firmer scientific footing, not as revealed truth, but as a competitive advantage in group competition.
Captain Stumpy
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2017
I conjecture that this is how to begin to put religion on a firmer scientific footing, not as revealed truth, but as a competitive advantage in group competition
@mark thomas
how, exactly, would this give an advantage?

there are evolutionary roots to religion elucidated in the following story often quoted by Dr. Tyson:
two men on the Serengeti see the grass move in the distance
the first man investigates
the second man runs thinking it's a predator
we are the survivors of the second man

there is delusion hard wired into the human brain
some interesting reads
http://scireprint..._God.pdf

http://www.ethics...away.pdf

Captain Stumpy
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2017
perhaps religion is adaptive too
@mark thomas
some additional reading you may want to see: http://www.des.uc...g%20.pdf

https://www.cambr...C3786767

https://hal-ens.a...oof1.pdf

Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2017
Captain, what if the "predator" is actually two other men of equal strength, weaponry and fighting skills, except they have been conditioned by religion to believe that they alone are: favored by God and therefore likely to succeed in battle; under a moral duty to protect one another; and are morally superior to the two heathens/pagans/infidels who could not coordinate? They may believe God wants the other two removed. Death in battle will assure a place in heaven. Killing is easier by dehumanizing the other two because they don't believe the same. Hopefully this is starting to sound familiar to actual human history. You suggested that the one who investigated was killed, but the one who ran would be outnumbered and assimilated or killed too. Now the two in the group actually are more successful than others because of their religion.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2017
Captain, thanks for the links. It appears others are seeing the possibility of a connection here too. So why not study it like any other topic of scientific interest? I recall reading about leaders of many different religions getting together to figure out what they had in common. Considering all the animosity, you might think they had very little in common, but it turned out they had a surprisingly large amount in common. This is a lot less surprising when you consider they are under the same evolutionary pressures.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2017
At a more fundamental level, like any other natural phenomenon, it would help greatly to be able to put religion in its proper place, including the good, the bad and the ugly.

Regarding the good, when I act with kindness, or even see kindness, it warms my heart so to speak. Why? Am I mentally unstable or is there a valid basis for this? I once took a big risk to help a family involved in a roll-over car accident. Like your example, the simple math says it would have been better for me to ignore them and keep driving, but I did not. Dozens of people stopped driving to help after I arrived. Dozens more literally ran out of nearby buildings to help too. Within a couple minutes there must have been 50 people there to help. I still get a little misty thinking about it. Maybe there is some good in this world after all. From an evolutionary perspective, our group cooperated to save four valuable group members and we were stronger and more cohesive for it.
Captain Stumpy
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 11, 2017
Regarding the good, when I act with kindness...Why? ... is there a valid basis for this?
@mark thomas
we're social animals

here is something interesting that may help you understand 2 typical types of risk assessment ... it actually applies to your example as well
https://annals-cs.../371.pdf

Maybe there is some good in this world after all
liked this anecdote - there really is a lot of good out there in people

emergency services in just the US alone (EMT, Cop, Firefighter, etc) - it's a job you do not do for pay because it really doesn't pay considering the risk

IMHO - this is an example of the potential good in people

speaking from anecdote as well: professional firefighters (every one that i've ever known) also have a method of open communication and "moral judgement" (as per the above study) that allows us to critique each other and call out the bad and good

fighter pilots do the same thing - WWII Ace Robin Olds spoke of it

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