All around us seems to be conflict. The Global Conflict Tracker lists 27 conflicts around the world today; a sample of 1,490 leaders polled by the World Economic Forum said the biggest societal risk this year was polarization; and even Taylor Swift has been targeted for fear she’ll endorse President Biden and sway the 2024 election. Why can’t we just all get along?
Surprisingly, we do. Humans are almost ant-like in the scale and range of our cooperation and conflict of all kinds are less frequent and devastating than they were in the past. We take it for granted but we should be amazed that people from so many diverse places across the globe can live, work, and even commute on crammed trains and planes in peace. A plane full of chimpanzees who didn’t know each other would be a plane full of dead and maimed apes, blood and body parts strewn through the aisles, as primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy reflected in her widely acclaimed book, Mothers and Others.
The mechanisms that sustain cooperation are now well understood. The most ancient of these is “inclusive fitness,” or cooperation among family and small tribes through shared genes. Ongoing cooperation for mutual benefit, or “direct reciprocity,” is the basis of friendships and networks. This mechanism, too, is ancient and found across the animal kingdom. Mutual benefit reaches our extended networks through reputation and shared norms—the basis of cooperation among those who share religion, politics, and other group memberships. This is a uniquely human form of cooperation facilitated by our ability to gossip and keep track of everyone around us, even strangers.
But there are always risks of conflict, both large and small, breaking out. Fortunately, the science of cooperation reveals what it takes for mere tolerance to become friendship and comity. For them to truly become us.
Here are 3 lessons:
1. Competition helps us discover mutual benefit
Ultimately, cooperation flourishes when people expect to get more by working with many others than by themselves or in a smaller group—a maxim so ubiquitous across all facets of life that I call it the “Law of Cooperation.” That doesn’t mean all groups achieve this optimal scale. When we start a company, form an alliance, or try to make peace with an enemy, we don’t always know in advance the reward, if the other party will do their part, or if they’ll be fair in sharing the reward. Cooperation depends not only on actual rewards, but people’s expectations. So many groups are trapped by historical grievances, false beliefs about the other side, or what can be gained by working together. It is competition that breaks us out of these suboptimal traps.
In the 11th century, most trade was facilitated by known locals or based on trust through family ties. But competition led to experimentation. Groups like the Maghribi Jewish Traders tried creating mechanisms of sharing reputations and informal community enforcement. Their experiment succeeded in expanding cooperation to an extended network of trust and trade beyond family ties to those throughout the Mediterranean, from Spain to Sicily to Egypt and Palestine.
Perceived mutual benefit is why trade between two countries reduces the probability of war. You don’t want to fight with your factory, unless you have another factory. Similarly, the sharing of knowledge empowered cooperation during the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization and tapping into a vast new energy source in the form of fossil fuels led to large factories, the expansion of education to create a workforce for those factories, and educated workers forming coalitions and companies to compete for the spoils.
2. Cooperation undermines cooperation
Corruption and civil conflict are often thought of as a puzzle but they are less puzzling than well functioning institutions and peace. Corruption is often the oldest, most stable form of cooperation—the ties that bind us into families, friends, and networks—relabeled as nepotism and cronyism. My colleagues and I experimentally demonstrated how the possibility of “direct reciprocity”—in effect bribery—undermines well functioning institutions and how cultural exposure to bribery can increase its prevalence. In the West, these can often manifest as lobbyists, special interest groups, and revolving doors. The most effective anti-corruption strategies are those that undermine these cooperation mechanisms—such as banning revolving doors and creating cooling off periods—to undermine alliances and prevent people from cooperating to undermine the system.
In The WEIRDest people in the world, Joseph Henrich argues that the Catholic Church’s banning of cousin marriage and other reforms to European family practices that began in the 4th century undermined European tribes and created the modern nuclear family. This in turn weakened nepotism and set the stage for non-family corporations and more successful liberal democracies in Europe. The values created by that shift, such as individualism, are spreading worldwide through education, urbanization, and jobs that take people away from their families.
3. Perceptions can create reality
The U.S. economy is currently booming, but there is a lag on the rise in consumer sentiment. The perception of a deteriorating standard of living—unsurprising given high interest rates and price increases on a range of goods, from essential items and services to homes—have triggered zero sum attitudes. Our zero-sum psychology leads us to believe that there is not enough for everyone. This in turn causes people to rely more on their immediate networks at the expense of others, increasing political divides. Regardless of reality, even the perception of zero-sum conditions can create that zero-sum reality as people choose not to work with one another.
Well intentioned attempts to help us get along or redress past injustice can further divide us by reifying subgroups at the expense of a larger group. The ethnic and racial boxes we tick for college, scholarship, and job applications reify categories such as African American, Asian American, Latino, and white. These categories are choices. They mask other possible unifying groups. Does a wealthy non-white child of immigrants, such as former Harvard president Claudine Gay, the daughter of wealthy Haitian immigrants, have more in common with Black Walmart workers who might tick the same box than affluent White colleagues? Is focusing on ancestry and ignoring other forms of privilege the best way to close racial wealth gaps?
Evolutionary theory and experimental evidence reveals that race is not a natural category. We evolved alongside people who looked like us. And social categories we create and reify affect perceptions of who is them and and who is us. When combined with zero-sum perceptions, this is a recipe for polarization and conflict.
The science of cooperation reveals that we can get along, but that it’s easy to slip backwards into conflict. The danger today is that because the scale of cooperation is now in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, the consequences of potential conflict are higher than they’ve ever been. By revealing the win-wins through cooperation for mutual benefit, by undermining rather than reifying subgroup differences, and by talking to one another across our divides, we remind ourselves of what we share and what we can achieve by working together.
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