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.