When anonymity is lifted and people meet one another, they are much more likely to cooperate and “play nicely,” according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.
The findings show that reducing anonymity could help improve the overall emotional tone of social networks such as Facebook or Twitter that are often laden with argumentative comment sections and fake news. It might also help in conflicts about environmental resources.
“Since the spirit of cooperation that social cohesion is based upon is crumbling away in some places, be it on Facebook or in societies that are about to be torn apart about issues such as immigration, we sought insight into what enhances cooperation,” said co-author Dr. Jürgen Kurths from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany.
“This might also apply to conflicts about environmental resources. However, we have to further explore the continuum, the many states between complete anonymity and very well knowing the other person. It will be exciting to learn what kind of information, what degree of mutual recognition is needed to promote cooperation.”
For the study, 154 undergraduate students at Yunnan (China) University were paired up to participate in an interactive experiment called the “prisoner’s dilemma,” originally designed by U.S. mathematicians in the 1950s.
In the experiment, a pair of participants are in a court trial scenario together but remain unaware of the other person’s choice to testify or not. The rules are as follows: If one testifies against the other, he or she benefits. If both testify, both get high fines. If both do not testify, assuming the same behavior of the other one, they both walk free.
The authors modified this basic setup to allow mutual punishment when a pair of non-cooperators meet.
“In our experiments, participants underwent interactions anonymously or [with a name], and they faced a threefold choice: to cooperate with one another, to defect from one another, or to punish one another,” said co-author Dr. Marko Jusup from Hokkaido University, Japan.
“We found that when participants knew each other, this significantly increased the frequency of cooperation. This paid out very well for all — so, winners play nice.”
The scientists initially thought that if one participant punished the other one’s antisocial behavior, it would result in greater cooperation. “We’ve been surprised to see that this was not the case. The punishment seemed to cause retaliatory sentiments, often resulting in further conflict,” said Jusup.
Lead author Zhen Wang from Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China said, “Today, it often seems that conflict trumps cooperation, be it on the Internet or in national politics — likewise in evolution, Darwinian selection should result in individuals pursuing their own selfish interest.”
Yet despite this perception, there’s a lot of cooperation in nature as well as in societies. “Our findings suggest that it is crucial to ask one rather straightforward question: Do the prospective cooperators know each other reasonably well? If they do, they will more likely not try to win at the expense of each other, but together,” said Wang.
Source: Hokkaido University