Cooperation vs Competition… Pain vs Pleasure… Survival vs The Fittest. It was all an evolutionary mess until Martin Nowak (Harvard University) published a recent article on the evolution of cooperation. After researching several thousand published papers, Mr. Nowak suggested there are five ways that all species – not just humans – cooperate with each other. In this post you’ll learn about these five ways and how to apply them in your life and for the greater good of humanity.
(1) Direct Reciprocity
The form of cooperation where help and assistance is directly reciprocated. More commonly known as the I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine type of cooperation.
The Example: Studies show that bats remember which bats have helped them in time of need and are more likely to return the favor. Humans are the same way. In more elaborate interactions – after a certain number of tit-for-tat occurrences – individuals may still cooperate even if the rival defects. In essence, we overlook mistakes and demonstrate one of the most powerful forces in social interaction….forgiveness.
How To Apply It: Seek out opportunities to help out your family, friends and colleagues. Chances are they’ll return the favor. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. If you do enough tit-for-tat assistance, you’ll be ok even if you do something really stupid—like putting Mr. Wiggles, your neighbor’s kitty, into the dryer.
(2) Spatial Selection
Definition: The mechanism where neighbors (or friends in a social network) tend to help and cooperate with each other, and over time form clusters that grow to prevail in competition with defectors and adversaries.
The Example: Among yeast cells, cooperators make an enzyme used to digest sugar. They do this at a cost to themselves. Defector yeast, meanwhile, often mooch off the cooperators’ enzymes instead of making their own. In independent studies by Jeff Gore (MIT) and Andrew Murray (Harvard University) it’s been found that among yeast grown in well integrated populations the defectors prevailed. But in populations with clumps of cooperators making their own enzymes the cooperators prevailed. Hooray cooperation. Boo yeast infection.
How To Apply It: Do not mooch off others. Do your part and form groups and networks of like-minded people. Continually foster and reinforce a sense of unity in your social, work and family group and clumps. Use words that rhyme with clump… like stump, wump and hump.
(3) Kin Selection
The most intuitive mechanism of cooperation. Kin selection is the scenario where those of the same genetics make sacrifices for relatives because those relatives share the same genes. Even though they may not be working to spread their own genes, they are still fostering the spread of their genes through family members.
Example: Your sibling, friend and a monkey’s uncle need your help. Who do you intuitively help first? I know, I know, probably the monkey’s uncle. Mr Nowak states there is still debate to determine what lengths we go to (called “fitness effects”) to cooperate with family.
How To Apply It: Since this form of cooperation is genetic and instinctual, most people are like Nike—they just do it. If you have family problems (emotional, financial, etc.) work to resolve them. Your genes will be happier.
(4) Indirect Reciprocity
The mechanism when one individual decides to help another based on the needy individual’s reputation. The I’ll scratch your back and someone else will scratch mine type of cooperation.
Example: Among Japanese macques, a low ranking monkey that grooms higher ranking monkeys (which have good reputations) may better their reputations (and get more grooming by other monkeys) by being seen grooming the higher ranking monkeys.
How To Apply It: Find find people who have a great reputation. Help them and provide true and meaningful value in their lives. For maximum cooperation, make sure others know about it. Practical and effective spin-off approaches to this include Finding Yoda (Tim Ferris) and increasing your Circle of Influence (Stephen Covey). Take it a step further by ‘Helping Yoda’ and the big hitters in your circle of influence with a good reputation.
(5) Group Selection
The mechanism defined by cooperating and assisting others for the greater good. A mechanism that includes lower order competition to increase high order cooperation.
Example: In Decent of Man, Darwin observed “a tribe including many members who… were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes, and this would be natural selection.” In many ways, Darwin got evolution all wrong, but his insight here into the nature of competition and cooperation is of value. Nowak suggests selection can occur at many levels which explains why an employee of a company will compete with another employee to move up the corporate ladder of their company (lower level), but they will also cooperate to ensure that the business succeeds in it’s competition with other companies (high level).
How To Apply It: Use competition and game theory at lower levels to help others improve and cooperate at high levels. Educate yourself about the real problems of our time. Work for the common good and be prepared to sacrifice yourself for it. March to the mantra of the Three Musketeers…All for one and one for all!
Credit and Appreciation
A big thank you to Mr Nowak for his incredible research on cooperation. Without his article published in Scientific American, none of this would be possible. And a special tip of the hat to him for making Darwin look like the evolutionary-neophyte-behotch that he is. Other props and credit to Robert Axelrod, Richard Dawkins and the info on wikipedia.
Discussion Item #1: Concerning Group Selection, researchers (Milinksi and others) have found people are more altruistic when they receive authoritative information, indicating that people need to be convinced there really is a problem to make sacrifices for the greater good.
Drop us a line in the comments: What are the major problems of our time? How do we convince our leaders to work on the real problems so they will ‘convince’ others to work on these problems? Hint: donating money to their presidential campaign isn’t a good answer.
Discussion Item #2: I believe it’s not the idea but the execution of a great idea that matters. So I’m going to give away a great idea for free. The question is…who is going to execute it?
The Idea (And Challenge): Develop a Quantified Self app or device that measures reputation, generosity and indirect reciprocity. Make leaders and authoritative figures accountable for the common good, and make their reputations pay when they aren’t. Be sure to keep defectors in check. Combine the worlds of social impact, politics, not-just-for profits and technology. Use the principles of cooperation above. Focus on Indirect Reciprocity and Group Selection. Think of it like Klout for cooperation—a human generosity meter for the common good.