How can you tell what motivates someone to cooperate?

It’s a question many have wrestled with for years, including researchers at Harvard University, who developed “the envelope game.”

The game is designed to help researchers understand why cooperation evolved, as well as why people care so much about other’s motives.

The model, designed by Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematics and biology and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED); Moshe Hoffman, a research scientist at PED; and Erez Yoeli, a visiting scholar at PED and a researcher at the Federal Trade Commission; is described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“For years, people have been asking those of us who study cooperation about the motive that is behind an action,” Nowak said. “The question was how do you get at that — how do you formulate a game theory where the motive makes a difference?”

The solution was to add a new wrinkle to the traditional “cooperation game” used by researchersl one that offers players the chance to consider the costs of cooperation, he explained.

“What’s new about this game is that rather than simply deciding whether to cooperate or defect, you now have a new choice, which is whether to open this envelope,” Hoffman said. “Inside the envelope it tells you the cost of cooperation — it’s either high or low.”

“Basically, the envelope is a metaphor for considering the cost of cooperation before making a decision,” he continued. “Someone who’s very principled about cooperation, or a genuine altruist, would never open the envelope.”

The game works this way: Before deciding whether to cooperate, one player has the option of opening an envelope telling whether the cost of cooperation is high or low. Based on that information, that player can choose whether to cooperate or not, and the second player — who knows whether their counterpart looked in the envelope — can then decide whether to repeat the interaction with a new envelope, or end the relationship.

“What’s innovative about this model is we’re able to capture this notion that people care whether or not you’re principled,” Hoffman said. “What we see in real life is that people only choose to continue a relationship with those who don’t open the envelope, because someone who is a genuine altruist…they just cooperate without looking.”

The new model can also help to explain why a well-intentioned New Orleans rescue mission after Hurricane Katrina by actor Sean Pean ultimately became fodder for criticism when he brought along a publicist and photographer to document his good deeds.

“Previous models of cooperation would predict that people would cooperate with him because he’s doing good,” Hoffman said. “Those models had a hard time capturing the fact that while he’s cooperated, it’s kind of a dirty form of cooperating. This new model allows us to differentiate because even though he’s cooperating, he’s someone who cooperates while opening the envelope.”

That’s not to suggest that that sort of cooperation is bad, Nowak added.

“It’s simply a different type of interaction,” he said. “Because this model is the first of its kind, and it feels so different from all the other models, it took us some time to analyze it, and what we found is that there will be some situations in which you would only cooperate with a person if they don’t open the envelope, there may be other strategies — such as a business relationship — where you can continue to cooperate regardless of whether the other person looks.

“What we wanted to analyze is which equilibrium is chosen by evolution and under what circumstances.”

That analysis revealed the conditions under which people are more likely to trust those who do not open the envelope — the true altruists — more than those who do, he continued.

“That analysis found that it needs to be the case that cooperating is usually very cheap, but once in a while it becomes very costly, meaning you’re very tempted to defect, but defecting really hurts the other player,” he said.

“If that happens, that’s exactly when we would expect people to care if you’re principled or if you’re a genuine cooperator, or if you open the envelope.”

Bringing a camera crew to document your rescue efforts in New Orleans is the real-world equivalent of looking in the envelope, Hoffman said.

“The public knows that person is cooperating when it’s not costly, but that they would probably defect if they were really tempted, so that person can’t be trusted to be a stable cooperator,” he said.

Understanding how motives affect cooperation, Hoffman said, is more than just an academic exercise — the model offers insights into a host of real-world situations ranging from politics to the boardroom, and beyond, clarifying when we should care about motives, as well as whether policymakers should respect these considerations.

Though earlier models might suggest that a politician who changes positions based on polls is merely responding to his or her constituents, Hoffman said this new model explains why they are so often branded as flip-floppers.

“People say they aren’t genuine,” he said. “Our model suggests that people might be thinking, ‘Well, they support this position now, but what about a year from now, when it’s not as popular?'”

The model isn’t the end all to understand everything about cooperation, according to the researchers.

“If what you want to understand is why people reciprocate, or why people do good in the first place, the models of reciprocal altruism are very, very insightful,” Hoffman said. “But this is the only model that can capture why we care about the motives of other or why people want to be principled.”

Most importantly, the new model can bring “principled behavior and authentic altruism out of the domain of philosophy and theology and provide an evolutionary explanation for these phenomena,” the researchers conclude.

Source: Harvard University

Businesspeople photo available from Shutterstock