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Social insight rings true 125 years on

Nature, October 25, 2012, Volume 490, Correspondence, p. 487

David Rand and colleagues pose the question: “Are we intuitively cooperative, with reflection upon the logic of self-interest causing us to rein in our cooperative urges and instead act selfishly?” (Nature 489, 427-430; 2012). In answering affirmatively, they confirm an observation made 125 years ago by the Republican Senator for California, Leland Stanford. Stanford had introduced a bill in 1886 to foster worker cooperatives and was interviewed by the Cincinnati Enquirer [PDF]. When Stanford broached the issue of women’s rights, the reporter asked him, “Do you not think women will go off on sentimental issues if they undertake the business of government and break up the organizations by which men work out large ends?” “Oh!” replied Stanford, “it is not sentiment that we have to fear so much as we suppose. A man’s sentiments are generally just and right, while it is second selfish thought which makes him trim and adopt some other view. The best reforms are worked out when sentiment operates, as it does in women, with the indignation of righteousness.” (See http://go.nature.com/i6b91d.) Stanford's discernment of rapid, pro-social sentiment and slower, selfish calculation is but one part of a larger body of thought on the potentials for cooperation in the economy, which we may find worth revisiting today.

Lee Altenberg, Maui, Hawaii, USA.

Rand, D. G., Greene, J. D., & Nowak, M. A. (2012). Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature, 489(7416), 427-430.
Abstract: Cooperation is central to human social behaviour. However, choosing to cooperate requires individuals to incur a personal cost to benefit others. Here we explore the cognitive basis of cooperative decision-making in humans using a dual-process framework. We ask whether people are predisposed towards selfishness, behaving cooperatively only through active self-control; or whether they are intuitively cooperative, with reflection and prospective reasoning favouring ‘rational’ self-interest. To investigate this issue, we perform ten studies using economic games. We find that across a range of experimental designs, subjects who reach their decisions more quickly are more cooperative. Furthermore, forcing subjects to decide quickly increases contributions, whereas instructing them to reflect and forcing them to decide slowly decreases contributions. Finally, an induction that primes subjects to trust their intuitions increases contributions compared with an induction that promotes greater reflection. To explain these results, we propose that cooperation is intuitive because cooperative heuristics are developed in daily life where cooperation is typically advantageous. We then validate predictions generated by this proposed mechanism. Our results provide convergent evidence that intuition supports cooperation in social dilemmas, and that reflection can undermine these cooperative impulses.