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What’s Most People’s First Response? To Cooperate

What's Most People's First Response? To CooperateA new study by Harvard University researchers finds that people’s first response is to cooperate and be selfless.

However, if we stop to think about something, it encourages selfishness.

The researchers, David Rand, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, Joshua Greene, an associate professor of psychology, and Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematics and biology, recruited thousands of participants to play a “public goods game” in which it was “Me” vs. “Us.”

Subjects were put into small groups and faced with a choice: Keep the money you’ve been given, or contribute it into a common pool that grows and benefits the whole group. The underlying premise: Hold onto the money and you come out ahead, but the group does best when everyone contributes.

The researchers wanted to know whether people’s first impulse is cooperative or selfish.

To find out, they started by looking at how quickly different people made their choices, and found that faster deciders were more likely to contribute to the common good.

Next they forced people to go fast or to stop and think, and found the same thing: Faster deciders tended to be more cooperative, and the people who had to stop and think gave less.

Finally, the researchers tested their hypothesis by manipulating people’s mindsets. They asked some people to think about the benefits of intuition before choosing how much to contribute.

Others were asked to think about the virtues of careful reasoning. Once again, intuition promoted cooperation, and deliberation did the opposite.

“In daily life, it’s generally in your interest to be cooperative,” Rand said. “So we internalize cooperation as the right way to behave. Then when we come into unusual environments, where incentives like reputation and sanctions are removed, our first response is to keep behaving the way we do in normal life.”

“When we think about it, however, we realize that this is one of those rare situations where we can be selfish and get away with it.”

The experiments tested thousands of people from around the world using Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online labor market that’s becoming a popular tool for research.

According to Rand, the findings highlight a counterintuitive truth — that careful thought and reflection have a dark side.

“When it’s ‘Me’ vs. ‘Us,’ our intuitions seem to work well. That’s what’s going on here,” said Greene. “But what happens when people have different moral intuitions, for example, about abortion or raising taxes? When intuitions clash — when it’s the values of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ — reasoning and reflection may be our best hope for reconciling our differences.”

The findings were published in Nature.

Source: Harvard University


What’s Most People’s First Response? To Cooperate

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). What’s Most People’s First Response? To Cooperate. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 20 Sep 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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