Catalyzing Cooperation

Donald Trump has seemingly slipped into every thought I have had since Tuesday’s U.S. Election. Naturally, I thought I should write about this shocking outcome. I had a fairly long list of potential ideas:

  • A post on the effects of a Trump Presidency on emerging countries (Answer—It’s not looking good)
  • A post about the worldwide reaction to these results (In short—Russia is loving it, everyone else is not)
  • A post ranting about my disgust for Trump’s racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic, bigoted remarks (I think we’ve seen enough of those on Facebook)

Instead, I thought I would clear my mind by writing about something optimistic, something fundamental which has unfortunately been pushed aside during this election season: The Power of Cooperation. 

Most of life is not a zero-sum game. More times than not, both sides can do well, or both sides can do badly. Not only is it beneficial for players to solve problems and strategize in a cooperative environment, but many of the world’s toughest challenges can only possibly be solved by mutually cooperating. These include complex problems like environmental sustainability, the threats of terrorism, and immigration. We are fooled if we think that nationalism can solve issues that span across state borders.

Promoting outcomes and affecting change is not just a matter of lecturing about the positive results of cooperation. We need to go one step further. We need to shape interactions that foster a cooperative spirit. We need to apply nudges that make cooperation more desirable than defection for the player.

Let us examine five ways companies, governments, and individuals can promote mutual cooperation amongst each other. To learn more about them, I highly recommend reading the “The Evolution of Cooperation” by Robert Axelrod.

Enlarge the Shadow of the Future. Cooperation can occur once the future isimageedit_2_7416381023
sufficiently important to the present. If players understand that the decision to cooperate or not will affect future probable interactions, they are more incentivized to cooperate in the first place. People often prioritize immediate successes, which defection can offer, over long-term sustainable gain. This is because of (1) the uncertainty of future interactions and (2) the human desire to receive benefits today rather than tomorrow. However, the bigger emphasis we place on the repercussions of the future, the more likely players will find that cooperation is indeed the better path to take.

imageedit_1_7257909111Change the Payoffs. This one is simple: If the payoffs for cooperation are greater than those of defection, players will be more likely to pursue cooperative decision making. Enter: Governments. Through laws and policies, policymakers try to make defection less attractive for the individual. A famous Rousseau quote explains it well. He said that the government’s role is to make sure each citizen will be “forced to be free” (Rousseau 1762/1950, p. 18). By creating official laws and informal social rules  that make cooperation attractive, we can design a world, in which people are more likely to take a cooperative if not a more collaborative approach to problem-solving.

Teach People to Care about Each Other. This imageedit_1_5809211071is the best, but also most difficult way to create a more cooperatively-inclined society. Most of us try to teach our children to care about the welfare of others, with the hopes of creating more altruistic offspring. I’m an optimist. I believe that humans are good by nature. Because love for others is already wired within us, we as a society only need to reinforce the importance of being kind-hearted. Naturally, there will always be those that take advantage of altruism. A selfish individual can exploit cooperation and, with minimal repercussions, not be generous in return. This is why altruism is oftentimes replaced by reciprocity, a less moral version of altruism with real consequences

Teach Reciprocity. For the egoists of the world imageedit_1_3295609742(and it is up to you to speculate how many there are), reciprocity-based cooperation is a viable alternative to relying on altruism for cooperative results. While “an eye for an eye” interactions can be harsh at times and lead to long-lasting feuds, for most day-to-day interactions, the promise of future financial or social return is a good incentive for cooperating. It’s not a flawless incentive, but an effective one.

Improve Recognition Abilities.imageedit_1_8843281641 The ability to recognize the other player from past interactions, and to remember the relevant features of those interactions, is necessary to sustain cooperation. To achieve this, we need to (1) put more efforts into understanding the players we are aiming to cooperate with and (2) establish exclusive relationships with just a few players. Instead of trying to work with all of humanity or a whole civilization to solve a problem, we need to pinpoint specific contacts, get to know them well, and then start cooperating to achieve results.

As it just happens, Mr. Trump has once again entered my thought process. I will not start ranting about how disappointed I am that we chose such a man to represent America. That will only frustrate me (and possibly you) further. What I will say is this: Donald Trump did not run a campaign based on cooperation—not among different racial groups, not among different classes of people, and not among different countries in our—no matter how much we deny it—globalized world. For this reason, we can only assume that he will not start emphasizing mutual cooperation when he assumes office.

And yet, I am hopeful because this is where our powers lie. Individuals need to understand the power of mutual cooperation and work towards creating an environment which incentivizes such interactions. The next president has been chosen. The decision has been made. We now have to make the best of it and encourage cooperation and inclusion from the ground up. This is how we will impact change in the next four years.


2 thoughts on “Catalyzing Cooperation

  1. Great spirited thoughts, I really love the optimism. I agree with your point emphasising cooperation and the responsibility of the individual, and would like to emphasise the importance of corporation on every level. We make a difference in our local and immediate environment, which is far from big politics. Inject energy in families and communities. That is exactly where change happens. Thank you for the article!

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