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Reciprocity, Not Reward, Drives Decision to Cooperate

A new study suggests the decision to cooperate with others comes from someone’s mood and his or her history of cooperation. The finding overturns the long-held belief that a decision to cooperate is based upon the rewards an individual believes they will receive.

In the investigation, Spanish researchers studied 1,200 students as they participated in an electronic game known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

The game is oriented so that the greatest benefits occur when both individuals collaborate, but if one collaborates and the other does not, the latter will receive more benefits than the one who cooperates. On occasion, this allows an individual to take advantage of the cooperation of others, but if this tendency is extended, in the end, no one cooperates and as such, nobody obtains rewards.

Analysis of the game results revealed that when cooperating with others is beneficial, the way the individuals involved are organized into one social structure or another is irrelevant.

In the experiment, the degree of cooperation in a network in which each subject interacts with four other individuals is compared to a network in which the number of connections varies between 2 and 16, that is, one that is more similar to a social network.

Researchers discovered the cooperation level among both of the networks were identical.

“This happens because, contrary to what has been proposed in the majority of studies, people do not make their decisions based on the rewards obtained (by them or by their neighbors), but rather based on how many people have recently cooperated with them, as well as on their own mood at the time,” the researchers said.

Experts believe this finding can help to explain how people make decisions — especially when one has to decide between collaborating with or taking advantage of others.

“Understanding why we do one thing or another can help in designing incentives that induce people to cooperate,” said the authors.

On the other hand, the fact that the networks are not important has implications, for organizational design. That is, organizational design does not influence the level of cooperation.

In this respect, it can be inferred that we do not have to be concerned with the design of organizational structure, but rather with motivating people individually to cooperate.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Carlos III University of Madrid

Reciprocity, Not Reward, Drives Decision to Cooperate

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Reciprocity, Not Reward, Drives Decision to Cooperate. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Jul 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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