Cooperation for the collective worse is as widespread as cooperation for a better society

14 Feb

Gloria Origgi
Philosopher and Researcher, C.N.R.S. Paris; Author, Qu’est-ce que la
How To Be Bad Together: Antisocial Punishment of Pro-social

Completely unexpected–and hence potentially interesting–was my
reaction to the scientific news in Simon Gächter and Benedikt
Herrmann’s compelling paper–“Reciprocity, culture and human
cooperation: previous insights and a new cross-cultural experiment”
in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

The authors were dealing with a classical question in social
science, that is, the “Tragedy of the Commons,” or the conflict
between individual interest and collective interest in dealing with
common resources. This is a well established conundrum in
contemporary behavioral economics and evolutionary sociobiology that
is usually solved by (now) classical experimental results about
cooperation, trust and altruistic punishment.

There is a vast literature showing how direct and indirect
reciprocity are important tools for dealing with human cooperation.
Many experiments have shown that people use “altruistic punishment”
to sustain cooperation, that is, they are willing to pay without
receiving anything back just in order to sanction those who don’t
cooperate, and hence promote pro-social behavior.

Yet, Gächter and Herrmann showed in their surprising paper that in
some cultures, when people were tested in cooperative games (such as
the “public good game”), the people who cooperated were punished,
rather than the free-riders.

In some societies, people prefer to act anti-socially and they take
actions to make sure that the others do the same! This means that
cooperation in societies is not always for the good: you can find
cartels of anti-social people who don’t care at all for the common
good and prefer to cooperate for keeping a status quo that suits
them even if the collective outcome is a mediocre result.

As an Italian with first-hand experience in living in a country
where, if you behave well, you are socially and legally sanctioned,
this news was exciting, even inspiring … perhaps cooperation is
not an inherent virtue of the human species. Perhaps, in many
circumstances, we prefer to stay with those who share our
selfishness and weaknesses and to avoid pro-social altruistic
individuals. Perhaps it’s not abnormal to live outside a circle of

So what’s the scientific “news that stays news”: Cooperation for the
collective worse is as widespread as cooperation for a better


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