Cooperation: Rewarding, Contagious, & Cascading

We see evidence of conflict and competition all around us. It seems inevitable and depressing. So, the question that remains is – why does cooperation exist at all? Well, science is now coming out with exciting discoveries about the nature and spread of cooperation that may paint a more uplifting and hopeful picture.

A Biological Basis for Cooperation:

Using the latest technology, brain imaging experiments at Emory University have now revealed a biological basis for cooperation. These studies show, for the first time, that social cooperation is intrinsically rewarding to the human brain, even in the face of pressures to the contrary. This suggests that the altruistic drive to cooperate is embedded in humans – either genetically programmed or acquired through socialization. In other words, reciprocal altruism activates a reward circuit that motivates us to persist with cooperative social interactions. These results also suggest possible ways to study conflict by studying deficits in social reciprocity or social reward processing.

The Contagion & Cascade Affect of Cooperation:

Even more exciting is another study at Harvard and the University of California which shows that cooperative behavior is contagious and cascades in human social networks. When people benefit from kindness, they actually ‘pay it forward’ by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences many others within a social network.  The study shows that your actions of cooperation will influence individuals who you don’t know and this influence persists for multiple periods and spreads up to three degrees of separation. Furthermore, each additional contribution is tripled! This multiplier affect means that your actions can influence dozens or hundreds of people, some of whom you do not even know or haven’t even met. This is very exciting and enforcing evidence that proves that good acts – of kindness, generosity and cooperation – spread just as easily as bad ones, and that it only takes a handful of individuals to really make a big difference.

But on a cautionary note, this research shows that good acts spread just as easily as bad acts, but not that they are more contagious. This makes it even more imperative for peacemakers to continue their important work, putting out more and more ‘good acts’ to compete with the overwhelming amount of bad ones out there. And also to take heart and not get discouraged. The work of peace is arduous and often the results are difficult to ascertain, but this research shows that it has a ripple affect that extends to places and people you might not even be able to imagine.

Read the full report, Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks, by James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis

Cascade affect

© Marc Gopin