Frank Flynn: Are We Intuitively Cooperative or Selfish?

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Frank Flynn: Are We Intuitively Cooperative or Selfish?

Research examines whether people are more naturally self-interested or cooperative.

This quarter we look at whether people are more naturally self-interested or cooperative, and what role self-reflection has in pushing people in one direction or another. In a recent study published in Nature, investigators find that cooperative impulses are natural and automatic because they are developed in daily life where cooperation is typically advantageous. However, reflection can undermine these impulses.

Researchers conducting the study set out to ask: Are we intuitively self-interested, and is it only through reflection that we reject our selfish impulses and force ourselves to cooperate? Or are we intuitively cooperative, with reflection upon self-interest causing us to rein in our cooperative urges and instead act selfishly? 

They address these questions using ten different economic cooperation games. One of the psychological features they observed closely was participant processing speed, knowing that “intuitive” and automatic responses are relatively fast, whereas reflective and controlled responses require additional time for deliberation.

In one study, for example, each subject was given US$0.40 and was asked to choose how much to contribute to a common pool. Any money contributed was doubled and split evenly among the four group members. Faster decisions resulted in substantially higher contributions compared with slower decisions. Furthermore, contribution amounts consistently decreased with increased decision time.

These findings suggest that intuitive responses are more cooperative.

Indeed, across a range of experimental designs, and with students in the physical laboratory as well as with an international online sample, faster decisions were associated with more prosociality. Consistent with this, when participants were subjected to time-pressure conditions, they contributed significantly more money on average than subjects who were instructed to reflect and delay their decision. The situation was the same even when the monetary stakes were increased tenfold.

In another study, some participants were first asked to write a paragraph about a situation in which either their intuition had led them in the right direction, or careful reasoning had led them in the wrong direction. Conversely, other subjects were asked to write about either a situation in which intuition had led them in the wrong direction, or careful reasoning had led them in the right direction.

Consistent with the earlier experiments, contributions were significantly higher when subjects were primed to promote intuition rather than reflection.

Why are people intuitively predisposed toward cooperation? The researchers suggest it is because they develop their intuitions in the context of daily life, where cooperation is typically advantageous for important interactions, reputation is often at stake, and sanctions for good or bad behavior might exist. Their automatic first response is to be cooperative, while it requires reflection to overcome this cooperative impulse and instead adapt to the situations in which cooperation is not advantageous.

However, the environment one grows up in can also have a strong influence in this regard. It was only among subjects who reported having mainly cooperative daily-life interaction partners that faster decisions were recorded in the study conditions.

Researchers found there were some people for whom the intuitive response was more cooperative and the reflective response was less cooperative; and there were others for whom both the intuitive and reflective responses led to relatively little cooperation. But they found no cases in which the intuitive response was less cooperative than the reflective response.

The results suggest, therefore, that, on average, the automatic human response is geared toward cooperation.

On the basis of such results, it may be tempting to conclude that cooperation is “innate” and genetically hardwired, rather than the product of cultural transmission. The investigators caution, however, that intuitive responses could also be shaped by cultural evolution and social learning over the course of development.  Exploring the role of intuition and reflection in cooperation among children, as well as cross-culturally, may shed further light on this issue.

The study, “Spontaneous Giving and Calculated Greed,” by David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene & Martin A. Nowak, appears in the September 20, 2012 issue (Volume 489) of Nature.

More groundbreaking research about prosocial behavior will come in the Summer 2014 quarter.

Research selected by Professor Frank Flynn, Professor of Organizational Behavior and The Hank McKinnell-Pfizer Inc. Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at Stanford GSB.

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