Coooperation, it turns out, is a little more complex than the common assumption that women tend to be better at it than men. In fact, researchers have found that that men cooperate as well as women — and cooperate better with other men than women do with each other.
However, women tend to cooperate more than men when interacting with the opposite-sex – in other words, women cooperate better with men than men cooperate with women.
Study findings are published online by the American Psychological Association in the publication Psychological Bulletin.
Researchers began the study by conducting a quantitative review of 50 years of research; 272 studies comprising 31,642 participants in 18 countries.
Most of the studies were conducted in the United States, the Netherlands, England and Japan.
Only articles written in English were examined, and to be included in the analysis, the articles needed to contain at least one social dilemma, in which two or more people must choose between a good outcome for themselves or a good outcome for a group.
If everyone chooses selfishly, everyone in the group ends up worse off than if each person had acted in the interest of the group.
Although researchers did not find a statistical difference between the sexes when it came to cooperating when faced with a social dilemma, closer examination did reveal some differences.
Specifically, women were more cooperative than men in mixed-sex studies and men became more cooperative than women in same-sex studies and when the social dilemma was repeated.
In the study, researchers primarily used a common experiment called the “prisoner’s dilemma.” In this trial, a pair of people must decide whether to cooperate or defect. If they both cooperate, each person receives a modest amount of money, such as $10.
However, if only one person cooperates, then the defecting participant receives more money, such as $40, while the cooperating person receives nothing. If both people decide to defect, they would each receive a small amount – say, $2.
“It is a social dilemma because each individual gains more by defecting regardless of what the other person does, but they will both be better off if they both cooperate,” said the study’s lead author, Daniel Balliet, Ph.D, of the VU University Amsterdam.
Researchers have found that laboratory studies using this tool predict cooperation outside the laboratory very well.
In an effort to interpret their findings, the authors conjectured that evolution and cultural perspectives explain why men were found to be more cooperative than women during same-sex interactions.
“The argument is that throughout human evolutionary history, male coalitions have been an effective strategy for men to acquire resources, such as food and property,” said Balliet.
“Both hunting and warfare are social dilemmas in that they firmly pit individual and group interests against each other. Yet, if everyone acts upon their immediate self-interest, then no food will be provided, and wars will be lost. To overcome such social dilemmas requires strategies to cooperate with each other.”
Evolutionary theory may also explain why women are less cooperative with other women when faced with a social dilemma, according to Balliet.
“Ancestral women usually migrated between groups and they would have been interacting mostly with women who tended not to be relatives, and many were co-wives,” he said. “Social dynamics among women would have been rife with sexual competition.”