Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Cooperation is viral – pass it on!

September 23rd, 2010

No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, cooperation from the people around you makes it easier. Wouldn’t it be great to find ways to encourage it? Spread it? Make it the norm?

Global Cooperation Street PartySure enough, there are ways. (Regular readers saw this coming a paragraph away.)

Some fascinating research published earlier this year showed that cooperative behaviour spreads – and reaches beyond the person directly affected by it. There’s a ripple effect that passes through as many as three other people.

James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis (authors of Connected, published last year) analyzed the results of a set of games experiments in which participants in groups of four were each given 20 money units – let’s call them dollars. They then had to decide how many of those dollars to contribute to a group project. Every dollar they contributed “paid back” 40 cents to each of the four players – a total payoff of $1.60 per dollar, but with only 40 cents of it going to the one who contributed it.

This meant that if nobody contributed, everyone got to keep $20. If everybody contributed their full $20, each of them would end up with $32. Still, if three people contributed all their money and one person didn’t contribute any, the one “selfish” person would end up with the maximum possible – $44. And nobody was told what the other players had contributed until everyone had done so.

If you imagine yourself as one of the players, you can see the difficulty. You can improve the total gain by cooperating with your fellows – but you can improve your own gain even more by not doing so. The experiment participants played this game six times, each time with new fellow players, so there was no opportunity to “reward” or “punish” previous contributions.

Still, the players responded to generosity by paying it forward. For every dollar that someone contributed to the group in one round, the players who benefited from it contributed an extra 19 cents to their group in the next round. Not only that, the players in the round after that gave an additional 7 cents. In one version of the game, the effect even spread one round further. Cooperative behaviour in round one was affecting total strangers playing round four.

In fact, every extra dollar contributed in round one resulted in people in other rounds contributing a total of three extra dollars throughout the game.

The obvious moral of the story is “be nice and other people will be nicer too”. But if you don’t live in a cave, you already knew that. I’d suggest that an even more useful strategy would be to make cooperation and generosity as visible as possible so that they can have their ripple effects. Share the good news when a team comes together. Let people know when someone has chipped in on their behalf.

A small study (recently published here) found that women who watched a video of people thanking their benefactors were more likely to assist when another person requested their help, compared with women who’d watched a nature documentary or comedy clip. Those who had felt “moved” or “uplifted” were particularly likely to help. That suggests to me that publicizing prosocial actions works as a way to encourage them, especially if you manage to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings.

I’d love to hear of any examples of people or organizations using this approach successfully. And hey, if you can supply any, I’ll be more likely to do good things after reading them. Sounds like a win-win to me.

2 comments on 'Cooperation is viral – pass it on!'

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  1. Rob

    24 Sep 10 at 12:40 pm

    Perhaps I’m having trouble with terminology, but I thin the researchers mistook investment for generosity. Does generosity include expectation of financial return?


    Carol Reply:

    Sorry, I could have been clearer. Since each “dollar” a player donated to the group only paid that player back 40 cents, every dollar contributed was a 60 cent gift to the other players. So, you’re right that players were getting a financial return but given that they knew it would only be 40% of what they gave, I think it still qualifies as generosity.

    (And sorry for the delayed reply; the blog forgot to tell me I had a comment. Darn blog.)


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