Close-up of man and woman holding hands. Credit – Kelvin Murray – Getty Images
aEverything around us seems to be conflict. The Global Conflict Tracker today lists 27 conflicts around the world; a sample of 1,490 leaders surveyed by the World Economic Forum said polarization was the biggest societal risk this year; and even Taylor Swift has been targeted for fear she will support President Biden and influence the 2024 election. Why can’t we all just get along?
Surprisingly, we do. Humans have become almost ant-like in the size and scope of our cooperation, and conflict of all kinds is less common and less destructive than in the past. We take it for granted, but we should be amazed that people from so many different places around the world can live, work and even commute in peace on crowded trains and planes. A plane full of chimpanzees who didn’t know each other would be a plane full of dead and mutilated monkeys, with blood and body parts strewn across the aisles, as primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy reflected in her acclaimed book: Mothers and others.
The mechanisms that maintain cooperation are now well understood. The oldest of these is ‘inclusive fitness’, or cooperation between families and small tribes through shared genes. Ongoing collaboration for mutual benefit, or “direct reciprocity,” is the basis of friendships and networking. This mechanism is also ancient and is found everywhere in the animal kingdom. Mutual benefit comes from our extensive networks through reputation and shared norms – the basis of cooperation among those who share religion, politics and other group memberships. This is a uniquely human form of cooperation, made possible by our ability to gossip and monitor everyone around us, even strangers.
Read more: What I learned about America by traveling 150,000 miles on Greyhound
But there are always risks that conflicts, both large and small, will break out. Fortunately, the science of cooperation reveals what it takes for mere tolerance to become friendship and compassion. For them to become real us.
Here are 3 lessons:
1. Competition helps us discover mutual benefit
Ultimately, collaboration flourishes when people expect to achieve more by working with many others than alone or in a smaller group—a maxim so ubiquitous in all facets of life that I call it the “law of collaboration.” This does not mean that all groups reach this optimal scale. When we start a business, form an alliance, or try to make peace with an enemy, we don’t always know in advance what the reward will be, whether the other party will do their part, or whether they will be fair in sharing the reward. . Collaboration depends not only on actual rewards, but also on people’s expectations. So many groups are trapped in historical grievances, false beliefs about the other side, or what can be gained by working together. It is competition that frees us from these suboptimal pitfalls.
In the 11th century, most trade was facilitated by well-known locals or based on trust through family ties. But competition led to experimentation. Groups like the Maghribi Jewish Traders sought to create mechanisms for reputation sharing and informal community enforcement. Their experiment succeeded in expanding cooperation into a vast network of trust and trade that extends beyond family ties, with countries across the Mediterranean, from Spain to Sicily, Egypt and Palestine.
Perceived mutual benefit is why trade between two countries reduces the likelihood of war. You don’t want to fight with your factory unless you have another factory. Likewise, knowledge sharing enabled collaboration during the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization and the tapping into a vast new energy source in the form of fossil fuels led to large factories, the expansion of education to create a workforce for those factories, and educated workers forming coalitions and corporations to compete for the spoils.
2. Collaboration undermines collaboration
Corruption and civil conflict are often seen as a puzzle, but they are less confusing than well-functioning institutions and peace. Corruption is often the oldest, most stable form of cooperation – the ties that bind us to families, friends and networks – and is relabeled as nepotism and cronyism. My colleagues and I have experimentally shown how the possibility of “direct reciprocity” – essentially bribery – undermines well-functioning institutions and how cultural exposure to bribery can increase its prevalence. In the West these can often manifest as lobbyists, special interest groups and revolving doors. The most effective anti-corruption strategies are those that undermine these cooperation mechanisms – such as banning revolving doors and creating cooling-off periods – to undermine alliances and prevent people from working together to undermine the system.
In The WEIRDest people in the world, Joseph Henrich argues that the Catholic Church’s ban on cousin marriage and other reforms of European family practices that began in the 4th century undermined European tribes and created the modern nuclear family. This in turn weakened nepotism and paved the way for non-family businesses and more successful liberal democracies in Europe. The values created by that shift, such as individualism, are spreading globally through education, urbanization and jobs that take people away from their families.
3. Perceptions can create reality
The American economy is currently booming, but consumer confidence is lagging behind. The perception of deteriorating living standards – which is not surprising given high interest rates and price increases for a range of goods, from essential goods and services to homes – has led to zero-sum perceptions. Our zero-sum psychology makes us believe that there is not enough for everyone. This in turn makes people more dependent on their immediate networks at the expense of others, increasing political division. Regardless of reality, even the perception of zero-sum conditions can create that zero-sum reality because people choose not to cooperate with each other.
Well-intentioned attempts to help us get along, or to right past injustices, can further divide us by reifying subgroups at the expense of a larger group. The ethnic and racial boxes we check for college, scholarship, and job interviews replicate categories like African American, Asian American, Latino, and white. These categories are choices. They mask other possible unifying groups. Does a wealthy non-white child of immigrants, like former Harvard President Claudine Gay, the daughter of wealthy Haitian immigrants, have more in common with Black Walmart workers who could check the same box than affluent white colleagues? Is focusing on ancestry and ignoring other forms of privilege the best way to close the racial wealth gap?
Evolutionary theory and experimental evidence show that race is not a natural category. We evolved together with people who looked like us. And social categories that we create and reify influence the perception of who is them and and who is us. Combined with zero-sum perceptions, this is a recipe for polarization and conflict.
The science of cooperation shows that we get along well, but it is easy to fall back into conflict. The danger today is that because the scale of cooperation now amounts to hundreds of millions, if not billions, the consequences of potential conflict are greater than ever before. By uncovering the win-win situations of working together for mutual benefit, by undermining rather than concretizing differences between subgroups, and by talking to each other across our boundaries, we remind ourselves of what we share and what we can achieve by working together.
Contact us at email@example.com.