Everyone’s holding their breaths as the teacher explains the end-of-year project. They’ve heard from her previous students that it was a rather challenging assignment and are expecting the worst. But once she concludes her description, everyone lets out a sigh of relief—it’s not nearly as bad as their expectations. “Oh, one more thing,” the teacher says. “You will be working in groups of 5!” The classroom lets out a collective dreadful groan; it’s worse than they could have ever imagined.
There’s one thing all students despise: the dreaded group projects. Nobody wants to calculate the perfect time to meet according to each individual’s complex schedule; nobody wants to get stuck with a partner that doesn’t pull his weight; nobody wants to rely on other people for a good grade; and finally, nobody wants to deal with the imminent arguments that are sure to arise. But nonetheless, they suck it up, buckle down, and somehow work together toward the shared end goal. But why? What is the true motivator behind cooperating with others? A recent study wondered the same question and found evidence that suggests we cooperate with others (whether they be friends or strangers) mostly because we hope it will result in benefits of our own.
While past studies have supported evidence that both reciprocity and conformity play a role in human cooperation, none of them explored which is a more important factor. So, Dr. Angelo Romano, psychological scientist of the University of Torino and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and her team sought out to do just that and found that people, “are relatively influenced more by reciprocity than conformity when deciding to cooperate with others.”
To reach this conclusion, the team of researchers conducted different online experiments. In the first, over 700 people tackled a few activities with five other “group members” who were—unbeknownst to the participants—actually controlled by the researchers. Initially, the participants were tasked with imagining their spaceship just crashed and picking 15 different pieces of equipment to bring with them as they fled. They were told their group members were also completing the task and that all of their scores would be combined at the end.
Then, the participants moved onto the second activity, which involved playing a game with their group members in addition to another partner (who was also controlled by the researchers). In each round, one group member and the partner were given 100 tickets each and told to decide how many to give one another—but there was a catch: each ticket that was given away doubled in value. Therefore, the best outcome for the participant would be to keep all of her tickets and be given all of her partner’s tickets as well. This would leave her with 300 tickets. However, if both of them gave one another their tickets, they’d each come out with 200. And if they both kept all of their tickets, they’d remain at 100 each. The real participants first watched what the other group members decided (the ones programmed by the researchers) and then made their decision.
Ultimately, the participants were more likely to give away their tickets if their group members and their partners did first. This revealed that participants were more likely to cooperate when others did. But the study also revealed a more interesting discovery: participants were more cooperative when they had a cooperative partner and uncooperative group members than when they had an uncooperative partner and a cooperative group. So, when the group and the partner were pitted against each other, the participants were more likely to cooperate with the partner instead of with the group members. Therefore, conforming to group norms did not prove as important as reciprocity.
Romano hopes that the team’s findings help others and notes that the very “social dilemmas investigated in these studies are used to study and model real world problems such as global warming, or tax evasion.” So while the experiments explored group dynamics and the science behind cooperation on a smaller level, the better understanding we now have could lead to even greater advancements like successfully convincing people to join in conservation efforts. This could eventually turn into some much-needed, promising developments in our world.