Are humans selfish or cooperators?

I’ve previously written about dangerous and wrong assumptions about human nature. That the view of humans as fundamentally self-interested limits us to ineffective methods of motivation, and that we actually have evolved to cooperate.

I’ve heard more evidence over the last few days at the Imagine conference that humans are naturally cooperators. Let me give you a couple of examples.

David Erdal, author of the brilliant book Beyond the Corporation looked at first contact reports of hunter-gatherer tribes. He found that across the world they all had one thing in common: When they hunted meat, it was shared amongst all members of the group. You might expect that it was shared mostly with close family to help propagate ones own ‘selfish genes’ or shared in reciprocal agreements between individuals, but in every case it was discovered that ‘the criteria for receiving meat was simply having a mouth to feed.’

This is group selection in action – something that for many years even Richard Dawkins denied (but I believe has since come around to in the face of the evidence.) Beyond an individual’s own genes, it’s advantageous for the whole group to be well fed. Hunting meat is sporadic and tribes where nobody goes hungry are ultimately better for everyone within them.

Bringing this up-to-date, there are modern studies which show that in more equal societies which have smaller gaps between rich and poor, there are lower instances of social problems like infant mortality, crime, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence. Most interesting is that beyond a certain point in wealth, it’s income equality rather than extra income that correlates with healthier societies. And surprisingly, both rich and poor people in less equal societies suffer more from social problems. In other words, you are likely to enjoy a higher standard of wellbeing being slightly less well-off in a more equal society than richer in a less equal society. So cooperation with others in your society to create equality is actually in everyone’s best interest.

There is also cognitive psychology research (G. Cory, 2006) which indicates that humans have dual motives – ego and empathy. We have a drive to protect out self-interest but also others. This makes sense based on the evidence about cooperation. Further, it seems that the binary question of whether people are selfish or cooperators is actually wrong. I heard a speaker assert that studies have shown that around 40-45% of people are indeed more selfish dominated and the slight majority are inclined more towards cooperation. This is why the hiring process is so important for organisations which want to set up a high-performing team that works together towards common goals rather than an under-performing team of selfish individuals working solely in their own interests.

There are many examples which break the theory of the ultimately selfish human. In the hugely successful, employee-owned retailer John Lewis, partners (owners) have consistently invested in their own company on timescales that would benefit future generations of employees rather than themselves. They understand that empathy for future generations gave them the business that they benefit from today and they work to improve it for those that will follow them.

I talked to a director of a credit union in Australia over the weekend which is 100% owned by its members (customers.) He was planning to direct some of the organisation’s surplus (profit) into a new charitable fund and he expected that the members would be supportive of this and not only that, contribute more of their own money on top. There’s no explanation for this kind of behaviour in the model of the purely selfish human but it is very heartwarming to know that humans can and do think beyond themselves and behave cooperatively.

So yes, humans can be selfish, but we are a sophisticated species which has evolved to cooperate in order to reach higher levels of wellbeing for ourselves and the societies in which we live.

4 thoughts on “Are humans selfish or cooperators?

  1. Cooperation or political reciprosity in order to satisfy future selfish needs (everyone likes being seen as the nice guy)? Also in hunter-gatherer societies, the numbers are small enough for everyone to be part of a very small shared gene pool. Seen from a genetic point of view, it makes sense for h-g’s to pool resources – after all, you have a familial (genetic) vested interest everywhere you look. In a similar fashion to hives of bees – mutual cooperation stands out but if you then understand that each bee is so genetically similar to the next bee in the hive (at least having the same mum) then it appears to make more sense using the ‘selfish’ gene theory.

    Also, how do you account for or allay the problems that come with greed? Something tells me this is not a new phenomena within human nature.

    I do agree that the selfish / cooperation thing is a false dichotomy – we are neither wholly one nor the other – however, I would argue that the evolutionary psychology for cooperation is driven out of an initial selfish desire. I guess you could argue ‘who gives a toss so long as the outcome or consequence is positive’

    • Greed certainly exists and we have seen how it caused the global economy to collapse, only to be bailed out be debt that future generations will have to repay. Like I said in the article, humans aren’t all cooperators, but most are. And I think the future belongs to the cooperators.

      You make some good logical arguments (except the bees one – they are identical clones and the colony is the individual at a genetic level.) However, I’m more interested in the many huge examples of human cooperation in the real world that prove it is an enormous part of what makes us human. In addition to the studies above, how about:

      Wikipedia: Volunteers (often arguing!) but collaborating to produce the largest single work of knowledge humans have ever created.

      Big Pharma giving away huge amounts of research data so that others can work on it collaboratively and use it to develop new drugs.

      The global cooperative movement with 1BN members, 100M employees and assets in the trillions providing goods and services purely for the interests of society.

      The open source movement: Cooperating to produce enormously complex software that powers the majority of websites on the web.

      Elinor Olstrom’s Nobel prize winning work showing how cooperation can overcome the tragedy of the commons.

      I’m sure there are many more!

      Now you could make a case for peeling back the layers to reveal some underlying selfish motivations for cooperation in each of these cases, but the point is that cooperating benefits the individuals as well as the group, and a stronger group again benefits the individual in a way that selfishness can’t. given the deep and complex nature of these cooperative examples I personally can only believe that there is something deep within is as humans that drives us to cooperate.

  2. Hi Tom, You’re text below is not straying a long way away from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – in fact you’re at Level 4 edging towards Level 5. I envy you your situation of being able to be involved with something which you are so obviously committed to but I don’t envy you the uphill route that you’ll be following to convert the mass of folk who are almost all working their way through Maslow’s Levels 1, 2 and 3 to your way of thinking. Perhaps it will be easier if you can focus your efforts initially on those who are in a position of entrperenurial strength – they’re more likely to have gotten past Level 3. Good luck, Lee

  3. Thanks Lee. I agree I’m in a very lucky position to be working on projects that give me deep purpose and meaning in life.

    I’m actually planning on taking the opposite approach to what you suggest, and instead see if we can get people (for example the young unemployed) cooperating and building a future themselves to meet their own needs and benefit society. I have a lot to learn still about the cooperative movement but I’ve already been convinced by the presentations I’ve seen and conversations I’ve had here in Quebec that this is the operating model to build a new economy.

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