It's a small world we live in, increasingly connected by technology, trade, and common threats to our species' survival. Cooperation and collaboration are needed to overcome the enormous environmental challenges before us. But will globalization encourage this kind of cooperation—or will it just breed more intense competition, as people reinforce their attachments to their own national and ethnic groups?
That's what a group of researchers from around the globe ask in a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, participants from six countries—the United States, Italy, Russia, Argentina, South Africa, and Iran—played a game in which they were given tokens and had to decide whether to make a contribution to their own personal account, to a local group, or to an international group. If they donated a token to their personal account, they simply kept it for themselves. But if they gave to the local group, their contribution was doubled and spread among three other people from their country, so they received back only a percentage of the pool for themselves. If they gave to the international group, their donation was tripled and spread among 11 others, most of whom were from other countries, so they received back an even smaller percentage of the pool.
The more that participants gave, the greater the potential payout to each individual group member. So for everyone to benefit, they needed to cooperate with one another. Participants did not know what countries the international players were from, and they did not communicate during the pooling of tokens, so choices to share at the regional and international level required increasing amounts of trust in strangers.
The researchers found that people from countries with higher levels of globalization were more likely to cooperate with participants from other places around the world, giving more money to the international group, though not to the regional group.
The researchers also had individual study participants take a survey measuring their own personal level of globalization, meaning the degree to which they were involved in a network of global economic, social, and cultural connections. Whether they watch foreign films, talk on the phone with people in other countries, or work for an international corporation were among the defining characteristics of a "globalized" person.
The researchers found that, within each country, the people who had more of these connections were more likely to donate to the international group.
These results suggest that globalization does in fact promote global cooperation, rather than reactionary movements to favor kin and ethnic relations. Other studies have also shown that people from countries with higher levels of economic globalization are more likely to want to help other around the world. In this study, however, the researchers go one step further, suggesting that social (rather than just economic) connections across national borders foster global cooperation. They speculate that this is because these social connections promote feelings of empathy, a decrease in perceived distance between themselves and people of other nations, and the urge to cooperate on the global level.
So it seems the smaller the world feels to us, the more likely we are to work together to save it.
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About The Author
Cjay Roughgarden is a Greater Good editorial assistant.