Greed, Generosity, and the Speed With Which we Help Others

Author: Samuel Arbesman

Understanding cooperation — under what conditions it occurs, how we can incentivize more of it, and so forth — is important business. I have explored this in my own research, in collaboration with mycolleague Dave Rand and others, using the public goods game on social networks.

Well, Dave Rand has done it again. And in addition to doing some amazing research that just got written up in Nature, he has given his paper a super-snappy title: spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Rand, along with Joshua Greene and Martin Nowak, has conducted experiments using the public goods game to understand whether or not the timing of our decisions affect how we act. Specifically, they examined whether or not our speed in responding affects how cooperative we are.

And they found something interesting. They found that the more quickly the subjects responded, the more cooperative and more giving they were. Essentially, as Dave noted to me, “cooperation in public goods games is intuitive, while reflection and deliberation lead to selfishness.” In order to ensure the robustness of this result, numerous conditions were examined, such as forcing subjects to respond quickly as well as priming them to encourage reflection. And it seemed to hold up. Below is a graph displaying some of the results: As the authors conclude (with my added emphasis):

Here we have explored the cognitive underpinnings of cooperation in humans. Our results help to explain the origins of cooperative behaviour, and have implications for the design of institutions that aim to promote cooperation. Encouraging decision-makers to be maximally rational may have the unintended side-effect of making them more selfish. Furthermore, rational arguments about the importance of cooperating may paradoxically have a similar effect, whereas interventions targeting prosocial intuitions may be more successful. Exploring the implications of our findings, both for scientific understanding and public policy, is an important direction for future study: although the cold logic of self-interest is seductive, our first impulse is to cooperate.