Why are people sometimes willing to put “we” ahead of “me”? Perhaps our first impulse is to be selfish, and cooperation is all about reining in greed. Or maybe cooperation happens spontaneously, and too much thinking gets in the way.
Harvard scientists are getting closer to an answer, with research showing that people’s first response is to cooperate and that stopping to think encourages selfishness.
David Rand, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, Joshua Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, and Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and of biology and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, published their findings in the Sept. 20 issue of Nature. They recruited thousands of participants to play a “public goods game.” Subjects were put into small groups and faced with a choice: keep the money you’ve been given, or contribute it to a common pool that grows and benefits the whole group. Hold onto the money and you come out ahead, but the group does best when everyone contributes.
The researchers wanted to know whether a person’s first impulse is cooperative or selfish. They started by looking at how quickly different people made their choices, and found that fast deciders were more likely to contribute to the common good.