Less cooperation, please

Written by Joao Fabiano

Since the idea of enhancing human morality was proposed – and perhaps long before then – there has been a great deal of scientific research directly or indirectly inspired by the goal of improving human moral dispositions. Manipulations which result in increased levels of cooperation, prosociality or altruism are often seen as promising discoveries towards the path of developing moral enhancement technologies. The fact that increasing cooperation between individuals would be going in the wrong direction seems to be ignored. The problem moral enhancement proposes to fix is large-scale cooperation – cooperation between groups of individuals – not between individuals inside a group. Issues like global warming and nuclear disarmament arise primarily in the interaction between large groups of individuals, not in the interaction of individuals within the same group.

In actuality, humans already cooperate well inside small groups. We have evolved many emotional and cognitive mechanisms which enable us to function quite satisfactorily in the context of small cooperative groups such as the ones more frequently prominent in pharmacological research. Many have proposed local economies as the ideal design for producing sustainable management of common resources[1]. There is not that much room for improvement there.

On the other hand, when it comes to interactions between groups of different religions, nationalities and morals we can fail spectacularly. What’s more, our ability to cooperate well inside groups seems to be directly correlated with our inability for cooperation between groups. Let me cite a few empirical results to substantiate this last claim. Parochialism is the tendency to prefer to cooperate with members of your own group over out-groups, sometimes even if this comes at the expense of harming out-groups[2]. Interestingly, this tendency is generally proportional to how cooperative individuals are inside their own groups, that is, groups that are highly cooperative internally will tend to be the least cooperative with other groups[3]. The relationship also holds in the opposite direction: competition between groups leads to increased contribution to the public good within-group and to increased group effectiveness[4]. People who tend to exhibit higher levels of parochialism, cooperating more inside their group, also have a higher proclivity to conflict with out-groups[5]. Besides direct empirical evidence, there is a cogent case for a strong link between individual cooperativeness and group conflict when we note how the policies and practices that promote cooperation inside a group can easily – unexpectedly or not – lead to a conflict between groups. In an overview of the literature on solidarity mechanisms, the psychologist Gary Bornstein observes:

“Collective group goals and common group identity are emphasized, norms of group-based altruism or patriotism are fortified, punishment and rejection of defectors are increased, and the shared perception of the out-group is manipulated[…]. Whereas the foremost function of these structural and motivational processes is to facilitate cooperation within the groups, they inevitably contribute to the escalation of the conflict between them.”[6]

Moreover, us-566322_1920there is also a theoretical reason to expect that cooperation between individuals leads to group conflict. Many theories have been proposed to explain why non-kin cooperation evolved, and several of them establish that this type of cooperation could only become evolutionarily stable if it had coevolved with aggression towards out-groups. For example, Bowles & Gintis[7] attempted to model the evolution of cooperation using our best estimates regarding group-size and food-sharing during the Palaeolithic. Even when using the most unfavourable estimates to this conclusion, their results show that parochialism and cooperation could only have evolved together[8]. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that the brain networks responsible for these traits are strongly interconnected and that a moral enhancement that targeted only one of them would be hard to develop. As further evidence of this assumption, oxytocin – one of the drugs cited as preliminary evidence that we could one day develop a moral enhancement – seems to increase altruism, cooperation and generosity[9], but it is also known to produce in-group favouritism, leading to ethnocentrism and parochialism[10].

Increasing cooperation or prosociality between individuals would actually worsen the problems moral enhancement was proposed to ameliorate. Prosocial enhancements are more likely to amount to moral decay. The primary goal should be ways to increase cooperation between opposing groups. Not only there is little reason to want to improve our well-functioning in-group cooperation mechanisms, but also attempting to do so is likely to worsen the global problems moral enhancement hopes to solve. Increasing prosociality, if defined as cooperative tendencies towards other individuals, is quite simply going in the opposite direction we should be going. Perhaps, oxytocin should not be seen as revealing the beginning of a promising path towards moral enhancement, but rather as a clear example of the direction we should move away from.


[1] E.g.: Ostrom, E. (1994). Neither market nor state: Governance of common-pool resources in the twenty-first century. International Food Policy Research Institute
[2] For a meta-analysis cf. Balliet, D., Wu, J., & De Dreu, C. K. W. (2014). Ingroup Favoritism in Cooperation: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1556–1581.; for a conceptual overview cf. Hewstone, M., Rubin, M., & Willis, H. (2002). Intergroup Bias. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 575–604. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135109
[3]Bornstein, G. (2003). Intergroup conflict: individual, group, and collective interests. Personality and Social Psychology Review : An Official Journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 7(2), 129–145. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0702_129-145; and also De Dreu, C. K. W. (2013). Social conflict. In Current Sociology (Vol. 61, pp. 696–713). doi:10.1177/0011392113499487
[4] E.g.: Cardenas, J. C., & Mantilla, C. (2015). Between-group competition, intra-group cooperation and relative performance. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9(February), 1–9. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00033; Puurtinen, M., & Mappes, T. (2009). Between-group competition and human cooperation. Proceedings. Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 276(September 2008), 355–360. doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.1060; Burton-Chellew, M. N., Ross-Gillespie, A., & West, S. a. (2010). Cooperation in humans: competition between groups and proximate emotions. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(2), 104–108. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.07.005; Bornstein, G., Winter, E., & Goren, H. (1996). Experimental study of repeated team-games. European Journal of Political Economy, 12(4), 629–639. doi:10.1016/S0176-2680(96)00020-1
[5] Sidanius, J., & Veniegas, R. C. (2000). Gender and race discrimination: The interactive nature of disadvantage. Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination: The Claremont Symposium on Applied Social Psychology., 47–69.
[6] Bornstein, 2003, op. cit.
[7] Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2011). A cooperative species: Human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton University Press. Passim.
[8] Their model revealed that: (1) groups with non-parochial cooperators have a disadvantage over other groups and thus would not have evolved in the first place, however; (2) groups with parochial cooperators, that are willing to sacrifice themselves fighting against out-groups in order to benefit their peers, have an evolutionary advantage and; finally (3) merely parochial groups have a general disadvantage.
[9] For an overview: De Dreu, C. K. W., & Kret, M. E. (2015). Oxytocin Conditions Intergroup Relations Through Upregulated In-Group Empathy, Cooperation, Conformity, and Defense. Biological Psychiatry, 1–9. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.03.020.
[10] De Dreu, C. K. W., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 108; De Dreu, C. K. W. (2012). Oxytocin modulates cooperation within and competition between groups: An integrative review and research agenda. Hormones and Behavior, 61(3), 419–428. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.12.009. For one evidence on the contrary: Israel, S., Weisel, O., Ebstein, R. P., & Bornstein, G. (2012). Oxytocin, but not vasopressin, increases both parochial and universal altruism.Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(8), 1341-1344.

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3 Responses to Less cooperation, please

  • Paul Treanor says:

    Conflict between groups is morally necessary, since it is a precondition for all forms of non-individual innovation, including technological innovation. No heresy or revolutions without dissatisfied people and dissatisfied groups of people. Without heresy and revolutions, stagnation. This point has been made often enough, and indeed dystopias often feature an artificially compliant population, in an overly stable state.

    Research on attitudes within small groups is too far removed from the real world in this respect. It can not take account of historical and geopolitical factors, and it is not designed to do so. For that reason Joao Fabiano ought to be more careful about terminology, and specifically take account of the distinctions between states and social groups. The claim that ‘the primary goal should be ways to increase cooperation between opposing groups’ does not make sense in the real world, because ‘groups’ is absurdly vague. What are we talking about here: fandoms, the United States, trade unions, women, teenagers, sub-Saharan Africa, political parties, soldiers, the Islamic Ummah, pensioners, gamers, the obese, journalists…? They are all ‘groups’ in some sense. Without a clear terminology to begin with, you can’t simply copy-paste the conclusions of very limited experiments, onto the complexity of the real world. (Yes, I know politicians and the media do that all the time, but that’s not an excuse.)

    • Joao Fabiano says:

      Thanks for your comment Paul.

      Firstly, note that heresy and dissatisfied people are cases of conflict within a group, not between groups. (Of course, you might want to say the heretic forms his own group against the larger one, but that would be an unusual wording). Interestingly, I would expect that measures to reduce conflict between groups would actually encourage disagreement within the group. How much more the group is willing to make concessions to other groups how much more it would make concessions for heretics instead of punishing them; and vice versa. The type of cooperation I argue we shouldn’t have more of is exactly the type that would highly discourage dissent by strongly enforcing group identity and cohesion. Note that my citation from Bornstein mentions “punishment and rejection of defectors are increased” as mechanisms of within-group cooperation that lead to conflict between groups.

      Secondly, I agree that talking about groups can be vague. It can be vague because, as you pointed out, there is an abundance of possible groups at various different scales. I am not arguing we should be focusing in any of these scales in detriment of any other scale. I am arguing that, with regards to moral enhancement, we should be focusing on groups instead of individuals. Blur the differentiation between all sort of groups however you like, there still seems to be a meaningful, intuitive dinstinction between a group and an individual. It seems to me that most of the pharmacological research on cooperation focuses primarily on individuals cooperating among themselves instead of group-level interactions. I am inclined to agree with you that we cannot make direct use of conclusions from these experiments when dealing with real-world issues – because these issues are at the group level. This is part of the problem I am trying to point at.

  • Jason says:

    Thanks for this great post, Joao.

    I think the trade-off you mention is a very interesting one, but I think moral enhancement would not necessarily alter the attitudes of individuals towards their in-group, and thus, as you claim, increase our hostility towards out-groups, but rather, such drugs would change our conception of groups themselves, making them more porous and accessible to out-group members. If my understanding of groups is so changed, I would surely be more willing to recognize others as being within this charmed circle of good-treatment, and thus treat more people better.

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