Why Cooperate?

1 07 2011

There’s every possibility that I’ve missed something utterly obvious, but I’ve been reading up on the fickle nature of cooperation for my thesis, and I’ve found what appears to be a gaping hole in the literature.

There are countless studies that explore the challenges of encouraging cooperation – primarily via the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a tool. There are also plenty of studies that look at cooperation from a social perspective, at the motivations that individual agents employ and the psychological benefits they receive from group activity.

But I’m yet to find a paper that clearly defines what cooperation really is and, more importantly, it’s benefits.

It seems the existing studies skip the question: why cooperate?, and barrel forth into questions about the difficulty of encouraging cooperation, apparently assuming that cooperation is a universally desirable outcome. Maybe it is, but I want to know precisely what are the benefits of cooperation that makes it so attractive.

So far I’ve come up with six reasons why cooperation is deemed desirable:

1) Force multiplication

Cooperation allows two or more individuals to combine forces to perform a task that would be impossible by one individual alone. A simple example would be lifting a heavy weight (we’ve all asked friends and family to pop around to shift that couch).

In fact, the task could be defined as anything that is beyond the capacities of an individual, whether that capacity is physical (strength), intellectual or spatiotemporal (manipulating two distant objects simultaneously). This doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement to efficiency, just that a previously impossible task is rendered possible.

2) Division of labour

Cooperation enables a large task to be broken up into smaller sub-tasks which are easier to perform than the whole task taken as one. This not only makes one large complex task into smaller simple tasks, but it allows a large serial task to be parallelised, thus improving efficiency.

3) Sepcialisation

Cooperation allows individuals to devote a greater proportion of their finite resources towards improving performance at a particular task. Combined with division of labour this not only improves efficiency but can also enable tasks that were previously impossible without specialisation.

Specialisation also allows individuals to capitalise on their intrinsic strengths and mitigate their intrinsic weaknesses by cooperating with a sympathetic individual.

4) Coordination

Division of labour and specialisation in turn allow greater coordination through devoting finite resources specifically towards directing effort in a way that is more efficient than if it is undertaken on an ad hoc basis. The benefit of coordination would only emerge if the energy expended coordinating is more than made up for by increased efficiency or productivity in the task at hand (a problem for corporations riddled with middle managers today…).

Coordination can also prevent conflicts of interest and potentially costly clashes (see the donkeys in the pic).

5) Trade

Cooperation also allows one individual to ‘trade’ a surplus for a surplus produced by another individual. This trade can be literal, such as trading goods, or it can be figurative, such as trading labour.

6) Risk mitigation

Cooperation enables a task to be unshackled from being dependent on any one individual, such that if that individual is in some way prevented from performing that task, the entire endeavour doesn’t collapse around their ears.

I’m sure there must be more benefits to cooperation. I reckon economics must have studied cooperation extensively, but I’m not as familiar with economic texts, so don’t really know where to dig to find the answers. Most of my research has been in evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology, game theory and ethics, and it seems the benefits of cooperation are largely taken for granted in these fields.

If you think I’ve missed anything, or you have some tips on where I can read up on research on cooperation, please do let me know.



14 responses

1 07 2011
James Gray

If you look into arguments involving economics I would expect much of this to be discussed. Specialization and the importance of cooperation are well understood to be needed for our economy. Arguments for Corporations are based on the idea that large numbers of people are needed to complete various projects.

1 07 2011

Very interesting. I did look at some psychology studies, but they seem to be very effect specific; especially learning and collaboration is addressed, but I don’t think that’s what you’re after.

I think this paper gives a nice and simple definition of cooperation (perhaps):

Click to access West_etal_JEB07.pdf

It also provides tons of potentially useful references, and looks like this might be of some weight: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/383541

But you may have seen them already.

2 07 2011
Mark Sloan

Tim, you might consider three additional benefits for your list: emotional benefits, reproductive fitness benefits, and the benefit of group punishment of poor cooperators (which increases all other benefits).

Emotional benefits include the biologically produced positive pleasures of cooperation with friends and family for example, knowing you are held in high regard, and avoiding the negative effects of guilt, shame, and loneliness. These biologically based positive and negative feelings were selected for in our ancestors by the reproductive fitness benefits produced by the cooperative behaviors they motivated.

It is interesting to me that the most important benefits of cooperation have apparently not been constant through human history. For instance, the above emotional responses were originally the ‘means’ to the ‘end’ of increasing reproductive fitness. However, in modern societies with money economies and rule of law, reproductive fitness benefits have become a relatively un- important benefit of cooperation. Further, the original ‘means’, emotional rewards, of obtaining reproductive fitness benefits have arguably now become the chief ‘end’ of non-economic cooperation.

Group punishment (either in the forms of social condemnation or by rule of law including imprisonment and death) has shown itself to be a far more effective means of punishing poor cooperators (thieves and the like) than individual vigilante ‘justice’ and thereby increasing all other benefits of cooperation.

You might also consider that there are two major categories of cooperation. Some cooperation, such as economic cooperation in cultures with money and rule of law require no unselfishness and can be driven purely by self interest. Conversely, most non-economic cooperation requires unselfishness, such as I help you today and you may help me tomorrow. I expect the question “Why Cooperate?” will have very different answer for these two categories of cooperation.

2 07 2011
Tim Dean

Hi Mark. Those are, indeed, benefits to cooperation, but they’re not the benefits I’m wondering about here.

Benefits to fitness, emotional rewards and punishment are consequences of the fundamental benefits of cooperation I’m interested in. For example, were it not that cooperation enabled greater productivity or efficiency than solitary toil, then we would never have evolved the psychological reward mechanisms that encourage us to seek out social and cooperative endeavours.

I’m also not sure there are two categories of cooperation. I see all cooperation as being in the self-interest of the agents involved, at least in their ultimate self-interest. Certainly, there might evolve some proximate mechanisms that promote cooperative behaviour, such as empathy or altrustic norms, that might lead to instances where unselfish behaviour is to an agent’s detriment – but these mechanisms exist because they tend to promote ultimate self-interest on aggregate.

What I’m wondering about in my post is: what are the fundamental benefits to cooperation? What does cooperation enable systematically that makes it attractive? Things like specialisation and division of labour, which should apply to many systems, not just human society.

From there, we can explore how cooperation is actually enabled and promoted, which most certainly would make reference to things like fitness, punishment and emotional rewards.

3 07 2011
Mark Sloan

Tim, your list of “six reasons why cooperation is deemed desirable” (or “fundamental benefits”) looks more like a list of cooperation strategies (most human unique) for producing material goods, not fundamental benefits of cooperation. My list of fundamental benefits is instead reproductive fitness, material goods, and emotional goods. These benefits predate human culture, as cooperation does, so I don’t see it as logical to call them secondary benefits. If, during your pursuit of “Why Cooperate?” you become dissatisfied with your classifications, you might consider going back to the original benefits of cooperation.

Economic cooperation, which can be motivated purely by self interest, seems to me a different category of behavior than the ‘cooperation’ shown by a soldier risking his life to defend his fellow soldiers, a husband and wife cooperating, or you sending money to help someone you will never meet who is in difficulty. Perhaps you can make sense of “Why cooperate” without making such a distinction. However, of the two difficulties, it seems to me easier to carefully define the distinction (I know that is not easy) rather than make sense of “Why Cooperate?” without making that distinction.

3 07 2011
Tim Dean

Hi Mark. It seems we may have some crossed wires, perhaps because of the title I chose. Perhaps it should be: what are the benefits of cooperation from a systemic perspective?

I want to know, for example, why cooperation advances fitness and, as a consequence, why we evolved emotional responses that encourage us to cooperate. I want to get to the very roots of cooperation as a concept, not only as it’s employed.

It’s like asking: why do we eat? One answer might be because food tastes good, or that we get hungry, or even that eating food advances fitness. But the answer I’m looking for is: what is it about consumption of food that advances fitness? The answer to that would be something about energy and metabolism and work.

Likewise, the answer I’m looking for with cooperation would be something about how it enables two entities to perform work that would be difficult or impossible alone.

And this isn’t just an economic perspective. Economics talks about cooperation a lot because it’s a fertile ground for the effects of cooperation to be seen; we have this nice abstracted thing, money, which serves as a tidy proxy for utility, so it’s easier to analyse systems that generate more utility in economics than in many other fields.

But the benefits of cooperation certainly extend beyond economics or the production of material goods. For example, there are at least eight major transition points in the evolution of complex life, including things like the evolution of cells with nucleus (eukaryotes), or the evolution of sex, or of multi-celluar life etc – all of which involve cooperation.

Also, I’d stress again that the only difference between economic cooperation and altruistic cooperation is that in the latter the self-interest is hidden away at the ultimate level of explanation. It’s because cooperation is in our ultimate self-interest that we have evolved heuristics, like empathy, and social norms that promote altruisic behaviour. But fundamentally, they’re employing the same phenomenon – cooperation – to advance interests.

5 07 2011

I recognise the picture you chose from the front cover of Karl Sigmund’s “Calculus of Selfishness”! I found the following useful, but I think I was cooperation more along the lines of Mark Sloan. Still I learnt I lot from the below.
-Martin Nowak is probably the biggest name from the theoretical biology side (he studied under Karl Sigmund as a student) and I recommend his “Evolutionary Dynamics”. It’s in the library and is a really well written book that covers heaps of areas in biology. It has chapters on the effects of graphs on the survival of cooperation. It has some difficult maths in it but is intelligible even if your maths is terrible (as mine is)
-Nowak has written a popular science book on the evolution of cooperation “Supercooperators: why we need each other to succeed” (in UNSW bookshop)
-you have probably seen this http://www.ped.fas.harvard.edu/people/faculty/publications_nowak/Nowak_Science06.pdf
-http://www.univie.ac.at/virtuallabs/ is a great site where you can run your own simulations and play around with variables. The site is the basis for many published papers.
-“Principles of Social Evolution” by Andrew Bourke is a great discussion based on Hamilton’s inclusive fitness on how and when cooperation and altruism can arise. It does not really discuss humans but it really helped me understand clearly Hamilton’s rule (as per The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I & II). It looks at things like; How can multicellular organisms work? How did they manage to evolve from single cells to multicells etc. It is a very well written book.
-The end of Samuel Bowles “Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions and Evolution” (in UNSW library) has some models of group formation and stability.
-Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis have just written “A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution” which I have not yet read but I am looking forward to it and I think it would relate.

Hope this helps


5 07 2011
Mark Sloan

Tim, I am still missing some of the subtleties of the questions you are asking and regret not being more helpful. But I applaud your efforts to clarify and systematize our understanding of cooperation as a behavior applicable to bacteria, “the eight major transition points in the evolution of complex life”, people, and (though you have not mentioned it) intelligent computers.

5 07 2011
Mark Sloan

Tim, another point that might be useful. One aspect of our different perspectives on cooperation is in the utility of identifying categories of cooperation strategies. Your disinclination to categorize appears based on the uniformity of ultimate consequences, which, uniformly, are synergistic benefits to the cooperators in the long term and on average. My inclination to categorize is based on divergence of motivation, for instance, greed for “economic cooperation” and unselfishness for “moral cooperation”.

Categorizing cooperation according to motivation is useful because it enables social capital to be focused on enforcing the cultural norms that will most increase the benefits of cooperation in a culture. Focusing social capital on enforcing cultural norms that advocate unselfishness that increases cooperation benefits (which I claim are what cultural moral standards are) is a much more effective means of increasing benefits in the culture than wasting, in my view, that social capital on advocating greed, which does not require advocacy – people are more than willing to be greedy.

5 07 2011

Although it’s implied by some of the other items in your list, and since the items do all point to each other and are interrelated as it is, I think there is room to add “sustainability of effort” to the benefits enumerated. Cooperation allows more people to contribute to a goal over time, and ensures that in the absence of any member or set of members, progress can still continue towards the goal, adding especially progress over time (viz. building Rome, getting to the moon, etc).

7 07 2011
Mark Sloan

Tim, If you have not already read it, the paper “Sixteen common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans” might be of interest, particularly section 6.3. Proximate and ultimate explanations.

Click to access WestElMoudenGardner_11.pdf

27 10 2011

One benefit along the lines of your first few is merely avoiding duplication. So one bird is going to have to push through still wind at the peak of the v formation but why should each bird have to separately.
One fire will cook a whole families dinner. One large soup pot needs stirring as much as several small pots.
All these scenarios show how much cooperation can occur equitably by taking turns or inequitably by enslaving a cook. If you want to show the benefits of just the former over even the latter you’ve set yourself a much harder task.
Also I would encourage a different framework other than benefits. I would rather hear words which expressed qualities that were both positive and negative. Big ask I know as I can’t think of any at the moment myself.
Still cooperation is uncertain, requires other “skill sets” additional to the immediate needs of the task, costs energy and time in communication, risks errors and conflict…and it seems unnatural to have separate columns of costs/benifits.

26 11 2013
northshoreunitarians.ca | The Season of Cooperation

[…] What are the benefits of cooperation?: From Tim Dean, PhD student at U of NS Wales, Australia  https://ockhamsbeard.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/why-cooperate/ […]

23 08 2018
Alex Hejl

cheers, I thoroughly enjoyed scaning your post. I really appreciate your wonderful know-how and the time you put into educating the rest of us.

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