Competition or cooperation — which human instinct is stronger? – RN
Are human beings intrinsically competitive? Or are we wired to want to help each other? (Getty: Chris Ryan)
If you’ve played sport, been up for a promotion or watched Question Time in Parliament, you’ll have seen how competitive people can be.
But psychologist Niki Harre believes our instinct to cooperate is stronger than our instinct to compete — if only we could reconnect with it.
“I think we’re told a narrative of survival of the fittest, that it’s in our selfish genes to compete and to try and get ahead,” she says.
But she says there is more to the story — as a simple example shows.
“If you’re on a bus and you see somebody who obviously needs a seat more than you do, we tend to give them the seat, that’s in our impulse,” says Dr Harre, from the University of Auckland.
“So I think we’re caught in a contradiction — a story that tells us that we’re supposed to be selfish and competitive, and an instinct or impulse to be generous.
“It’s really important to realise that we’re not uptight and self contained, that in fact we’ve all got a good person kind of morality— an impulse to help, an impulse to share.”
Generosity can manifest in many different ways, from empathy to compassion. (Unsplash: Elaine Casap)
Kristopher Smith, a PhD student from the University of Pennsylvania, has studied cooperation and morality.
He believes humans stand out from other species because of “the extent to which we cooperate and help one another”.
“Usually when you see animals helping each other in the animal kingdom, they’re helping genetic-related individuals. For example, bees will make sacrifices for their hives,” he says.
“But with humans we see cooperation, people making sacrifices that aren’t easily explained.”
He says things like recycling, donating blood and even voting show humans can be generous for no direct reward or outcome.
“All of these things bear an individual cost to help strangers and unrelated individuals we may never see,” Mr Smith says.
What drives us to share?
Mr Smith recently conducted a study on Tanzania’s Hadza, one of the last hunter-gather groups in the world.
“If you think you want to understand more about how we’ve learnt to share and cooperate and help one another, then you might want to look beyond the typical populations looked at by psychologists,” Mr Smith explains.
Sharing spreads in Hadza hunter gatherers: Insights into the evolution of cooperation
To explore the Hadza’s sharing culture, Mr Smith designed a public goods game — a standard of experimental economics.
The Hadza don’t use money, so Mr Smith filled straws with honey and then observed how much the food was shared.
“What we found was that there is a lot of variation in how much people share,” he says.
“There were some camps where people shared a lot of honey and then there were others who were more selfish, they didn’t share much.”
Sharing is contagious
While the results of the experiment weren’t conclusive, Mr Smith did observe that the amount of sharing depended on the general generosity of a particular camp.
“They’re adjusting their behaviour to match what their camp mates are giving,” Mr Smith says.
“So they’re adjusting their behaviours to match the local norms, and in this way sharing spreads across the population.”
Dr Harre has seen a similar pattern in her workshops, which she designed as a way to help people reconnect with their instinct to cooperate.
They emulate “a game in which playing matters more than winning”, as Dr Harre believes we need to be in a reciprocal space for this behaviour to form.
“To act on that generous impulse that I think we have to be in a society that tells us that it’s the right thing to do,” she says.
“To let that [sharing] instinct out we have to trust that we’re in a supportive environment.
“And if other people are going to be selfish and greedy then we better be selfish and greedy too.”
Mr Smith is optimistic that even the most uncooperative of people, who are “holding back their sharing instinct”, can learn to change.
What’s driving that optimism?
Ultimately, he says, “we find it intrinsically rewarding to help strangers”.