Help the GGSC raise money to launch Greater Good in Action - Click Here

The Cooperative Instinct

By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas | September 21, 2012 | 1 comment

A new study finds that our first, quickest impulse is to cooperate, not compete.

So here’s the game. I give you some money—let’s say $10—and tell you the following: you’re playing with three other people that you don’t know and may never meet, and each of you have been given the same amount to start with. You are all invited to contribute any amount of your money to a common pool. Once everyone has contributed, the game doubles the amount in the pool, then gives each player an equal portion of that doubled amount. What do you do? How much do you put in?

At one extreme, you could put in $0.01, cross your fingers that others put in their entire pots, then walk away with $24.99—your portion of the pot ($15) plus the leftover cash from your original $10. At the other, you could put in your entire $10, hope for the same from others, and walk away with $20. It’s called the Public Goods Game, and is a common technique for measuring cooperation in the field of neuroeconomics. (The more cooperative approach, by the way, is to put in your whole $10)

According to a series of studies published in in the September 20 issue of Nature magazine by Harvard researchers David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene, and Martin A. Nowak, the amount you decide to contribute depends on how quickly you make the decision. Quicker decisions, they argue, are based on intuition, while longer ones are based on careful thinking.

The researchers considered this age-old question: Are people intuitively selfish but able to behave cooperatively with deliberate reflection, or are people intuitively cooperative, but capable of selfishness with further thought and reflection? To get at this, the researchers examined which kinds of behaviors happen faster: the cooperative kind or the selfish kind.

Running the Public Goods Game with more than 1,000 people, both online and in laboratory settings, the researchers showed that cooperative behaviors happen faster. “Although the cold logic of self-interest is seductive, our first impulse is to cooperate,” they concluded.

In a first analysis, data showed that people who took less than 10 seconds to decide how much to give gave approximately 15 percent more to the common pool than people who took longer than 10 seconds.

In a second study, the experimenters instructed half of the people to decide how much to contribute in less than 10 seconds, and half to think about their decision for at least 10 seconds, and then decide how much to give. Again, the ‘thinkers’ gave less to the pool.

Finally, the experimenters asked one group of people to write about a time when intuition led to the right decision or when careful reasoning led them astray, and a second group to write about a time when careful reasoning led them to the right decision or when intuition led them astray—then all the participants played the Public Goods Game. The result? Those people who wrote about good decisions from intuition or bad decisions from careful reasoning gave more money to the pool.

These studies provide strong evidence that people, on average, have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively—and with continued reasoning, become more likely to behave selfishly. The authors caution that their data do not prove that cooperation is more innate than selfishness at a genetic level—but they point out that life experience suggests that, in most cases, cooperation is advantageous, so that’s generally not a bad place to start by default.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
About The Author

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:


I’m curious how the study corrects for what I am guessing might be an immediate impulse on the part of non-mathematicians to think that the bottom line result will be better for oneself (and incidentally for the others)  if one contributes more. It’s only when you do the math that one might remember to add the amount kept back to the amount received from the pool, which quantifies the reality that donating less results in greater personal gain. Or am I the only person who is this non-mathematical in my intuitive quick response? 

If this were true for many respondents, then the intuitive response doesn’t necessarily reflect greater generosity. It could be interpreted as reflecting erroneous estimation of greater personal gain.

P.Tesler | 2:28 pm, October 20, 2012 | Link

blog comments powered by Disqus


  • How SEL and Mindfulness Can Work Together

    April 7, 2015

    When taught together, social-emotional learning and mindfulness can have even greater impact on both individuals and the world around us.

  • Why You Should Love Thy Coworker

    April 6, 2015

    A new study suggests that fostering compassion among health care workers might improve the quality of patient care.

  • How to Help Teens Find Purpose

    April 16, 2015

    Teens are naturally driven to seek new experiences—and that may be the key to helping them develop a sense of purpose in life.


Greater Good Events

How Compassion Creates Resilience, with Kelly McGonigal
International House, UC Berkeley campus
May 20, 2015

How Compassion Creates Resilience, with Kelly McGonigal

A book event for The Upside of Stress


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

The Path to Purpose By William Damon Looks at how children are hampered in their search for meaning, and how concerned adults can help them find it.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement