"Consistent Contributors" Help Their Groups

Those who set an example of cooperative, collective behavior make groups they’re in more successful, according to a recent study. “Groups and organizations face a fundamental problem: They need cooperation but their members have incentives to free ride,” J. Mark Weber, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, and J. Keith Murnighan, a professor of management and organization at Northwestern University, write in the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Weber and Murnighan looked at data from experiments in which participants could either keep small amounts of money or contribute them to the group. The “consistent contributors”—those who offered up their money regardless of what others did—set a tone of cooperation that made their groups more efficient and productive. In the end, everyone in the consistent contributors’ groups came out ahead, challenging the common wisdom that consistent contributors were suckers who always finished last. — Kimberly Roots

An Evolutionary Advantage in Keeping Tempo?

A new study out of Stanford University suggests that when people participate in synchronized activities—like the singing and chanting involved in many religious rituals—they become more likely to cooperate with one another. In one experiment, psychologists Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath had two groups of people walk around campus, one group walking normally and the other in-step. In another experiment, they had two groups listen to music on headphones and move cups back and forth in time to the beat. The members of one group all listened to the same music (so their movements were synchronous), while members of the other group listened to music with different tempos. After both experiments, members of the synchronized groups had a stronger sense that they were part of the same team, and they were more cooperative when they played economic games set up by the researchers—even making personal sacrifices, such as giving up their own money, to benefit the group. According to the researchers, who publish their results in the journal Psychological Science, “synchrony rituals may have therefore endowed some cultural groups with an advantage in societal evolution, leading some groups to survive where others have failed.” —Heather Wax

Costly Punishment Is Not a Winning Strategy

Costly punishment—in which one person punishes another at a cost to himself—rarely pays off, according to a new study by Harvard University mathematician and biologist Martin Nowak and his colleagues Hisashi Ohtsuki and Yoh Iwasa that appears in last week’s edition of the journal Nature. In fact, Nowak says, “efficient cooperation cannot be based on punishment. This is a very positive result.”
To study cooperation and punishment, the scientists created a computer simulation of a population in which each interaction leads to either a good or bad reputation; cooperation leads to a good reputation, while not cooperating leads to a bad one. Players could then choose whether to cooperate, punish, or opt out of interactions with another player—based on their observations of the other person and information about the person’s past decisions with other players. “Our behavior toward other people depends not only on what they have done to us but also on what they have done to others. Indirect reciprocity works through reputation,” the researchers write.
When asked if they want to donate money to another person, for example, the “experiment shows that people base their decisions on what the recipient has done before. Generous people are more likely to receive donations,” writes Nowak in an essay that appeared in an earlier edition of Nature. Because we spend most of our lives in a relatively small population in which we interact with the same people over and over again, we continually monitor and interpret how others act toward us and others. “When deciding how to act, we take into account—often subconsciously—the possible consequences for our own reputation,” Nowak says. “Moreover, our own observations are often not enough; we want to learn from the experiences of others.”
Punishment, the researchers found, is only a successful strategy when our assessment of other people’s reputations—and what others say about them—is reliable; in real life, however, perception and gossip can often lead to errors. In most cases, then, a population does better by not using punishment; instead, the best strategy is to withhold help from someone you think has a poor reputation or has made unfavorable decisions in the past. —Heather Wax

Religious Believers Are Nicer—Sometimes

People who believe in God tend to be more honest, helpful, and generous than those who aren’t believers—but only when they think such acts will enhance their personal reputation or when religious thoughts are freshly activated (even subconsciously) in their minds, according to a new study published in the journal Science. In other words, religious people are on their best behavior when they think God or others are watching.
To reach this conclusion, University of British Columbia social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff looked at anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics research from the last 30 years. They found that across the disciplines, religion and belief in a morally concerned God are shown to foster cooperation and trust, and make people more likely to engage in prosocial behavior (acts that benefit others at a personal cost). “One reason we now have large, cooperative societies may be that some aspects of religion—such as outsourcing costly social policing duties to all-powerful Gods—made societies work more cooperatively in the past,” says Shariff. These large, stable societies, the researchers explain, were then able to successfully pass on their cultural beliefs.
But the study also finds that in many cases, those who don’t believe in God act as prosocially as religious believers do, and there are certainly nonreligious institutions that involve effective policing and social surveillance. “Some of the most cooperative modern societies are also the most secular,” Norenzayan says. “People have found other ways to be cooperative—without God.” —Heather Wax

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