The Joy of Cooperation



Both the Sci Foo Camp at the GooglePlex and the symposium at the Evolution meeting in Snowbird were extremely productive and enjoyable experiences. I’ll write about some of the sessions I went to at the Sci Foo later. BTW, my own session on the strange decline of cooperation in America went very well; other highlights were two sessions on space exploration. The great thing about Sci Foo is its ability to break beyond the usual disciplinary boundaries – an impressive feat even for someone like me, who is decidedly transdisciplinary in my research approaches.

GooglePlex(photograph by the author)

The organizers of the Snowbird symposium did a great job of putting together an exciting series of talks. My talk was in the afternoon, preceded by the evolutionary economist John Gowdy and by the evolutionary theorist Erol Akcay. What was quite remarkable was how the three of us raised very similar themes, talking about ultrasociality, the evolution of prosocial norms and institutions, and cultural multilevel selection, all topics of central importance to this Forum, of course. I have written earlier about my perception that the study of social evolution is undergoing a phase transition, and the commonality of themes and approaches in the Snowbird symposium only strengthen my conviction that this is indeed happening.

The next talk after mine was by Joan Roughgarden on the evolution of intimacy. One aspect of her talk that struck a chord was her emphasizing the pleasurable side of cooperation.

Let me backtrack and try to explain why I found this emphasis so stimulating. Anyone who studies cooperation from a scientific point of view quickly realizes that cooperation is not all sweetness and light. There are two ‘dark sides’ of cooperation. First, cooperation can be used for truly horrible purposes. Genocide, especially in a world before atomic weapons, requires a large and highly cooperative group to perpetrate. Just think about the degree of cooperation and coordination that was needed to implement Die Endlösung.

Second, even when cooperation is used for entirely benign purposes, it is still highly vulnerable to free riding, so the suppression of selfishness is a necessary component. This means that the punishment of free-riders, or threat of it, is a necessary ingredient of preventing collective, cooperative action from unraveling.

All of this leads one to a rather joyless view of cooperation. We study the evolution of norms and institutions that make us more cooperative and the evolution of moralistic punishment, which is based on a kind of grim satisfaction that moralists derive from retaliating against the free riders.

Recently my colleagues David Rand, Martin Nowak, and others have argued that rewards are more important than punishment in promoting cooperation. However, in their experiments ‘rewards’ are simply punishments with a negative sign (you can either impose a fine on a free rider, or you can fork over some money as a reward to a cooperator). It’s still very materialistic.

Over the last two years I have been learning from my friend Harvey Whitehouse about the other side of cooperation, rituals. Rituals, which are based on non-materialistic, psychic mechanisms, provide us with an extremely useful alternative way of thinking about cooperation (it is an alternative, but also a complementary and a completely compatible approach to that based on norms and institutions).

Yet even here the emphasis of Harvey and his co-workers such as Jon Lanman is on dysphoric, that is, painful, unpleasant, frightening, or humiliating rituals and on how sharing traumatic experiences forges intense bonds through psychological kinship. Is the study of cooperation becoming yet another ‘dismal science’??

I am not saying that the theories of moralistic punishment or of imagistic modes of cohesion are wrong. Far from it. But we should also not forget that cooperation does not have to be grim and dysphoric. It can also be a joyful and fun experience. Most humans have the psychological machinery to derive psychic benefits from cooperation that are entirely separate from any materialistic benefits.

Snowbird(photograph by the author)

After the symposium the speakers moved to a restaurant where we all participated in a euphoric ritual called the post-symposium dinner. The fun part was not just consuming good food and enjoying good conversation – there was something extra, the feeling of camaraderie (CAMARADERIE: a spirit of friendly good-fellowship [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]). This was a relatively trivial and small-scale ritual, but it reminded me of how much fun it is to cooperate with people. Just the process of cooperation can be a reward in itself, completely apart from any material public goods that are produced.

And this thought takes me back to the series of blogs I recently wrote about evidence of large-scale cooperation before the rise of agriculture (see Another Nail in the Coffin: Poverty Point and blogs preceding it).

In an e-mail exchange following these blogs, an economist colleague asked, but where did the surplus needed to underwrite the construction of the Poverty Point mound, or the Göbekli Tepe complex, come from? His conclusion was that it had to be trade. But I think this is the wrong way of thinking about it.

Instead think about communal barn raising, as is done by the Amish:


Or, as Stephen Duplantier wrote in a comment on the Poverty Point blog:

What a month of work and celebration it must have been for the people during that mound-raising! What comes to mind is a massive southeastern Burning Man-type of event.

I couldn’t agree more. We should seriously consider such huge communal cooperative projects as a model for how early ritual sites were constructed. And much of the benefit of these structures for the social cohesion could have been not in structures themselves, but in people cooperating together to erect them and deriving a lasting feeling of shared camaraderie that could later provide a basis for producing other public goods – such as collective defense against external enemies.

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Chris Kavanagh

Interesting article Peter and I look forward to further details about the Sci Foo Camp!

In re: your main point, interestingly, I’ve recently noted a tendency to hear the opposite objection from folks involved in CSR i.e. that people are focusing too much on the cooperative aspects of ritual/religious participation and not enough on the darker, more parochial, intergroup effects. This is usually levelled at the same time as lamenting the influence of Templeton Foundation funding on the field but, to me, the criticism seems a little misplaced: while an enhanced in-group preference does not necessarily entail enhanced hostility towards out groups, most research on group psychology, strongly suggests that this is usually the case.

Thus, if you are documenting strong cooperation with an in-group and emphasising the positive aspects of cooperation, there is also inevitably a lingering implication of heightened out-group discrimination, if not hostility. And the same applies in reverse i.e. out group discrimination typically entails a heightened bias and hence elevated cooperation with your in-group. Thus, it seems that it is something of a category error to consider our penchant for cooperation with in-groups as being inherently positive or negative, it is clearly both and whether the outcome is considered as positive/negative will be strongly linked to an individual’s relative status as an in-group or out-group member.

Considering one of the examples you provide: while Amish people are very generous and cooperative with other Amish people and appear to happily donate their time and effort to communal construction projects; isn’t it also the case that their doctrines and their very way of life clearly illustrate a strong rejection of the ‘evils’ associated with the immoral life of the modern world?

Regardless, I still think you are right that it is important to recognise the positive psychological outcomes derived from cooperation and to note that these extend beyond those accounted for by benefits in material exchange. Indeed, the material benefits are likely an outcome of a more fundamental positive disposition towards other group members! In terms of rituals, the caution is also well noted as even those which appear to be dysphoric are often embedded in collective euphoric celebrations and/or are also often represented by the participants involved as being positive, transformative experiences.

Peter Turchin

Chris, thanks very much for your thought-provoking comment. My feeling is that the criticism of recent approaches to the study of religion that emphasize the role of religion in cooperation comes from fols such as neo-atheists who dislike religion on general principles. I, on the contrary, think that this is a very welcome trend. I also don’t think that enhanced ability for in-group cooperation needs to be associated with hostility to other groups. The Amish are very internally cooperative but as far as I know they have no plans to attack non-Amish! As I argued in some publications and blogs, Axial Age religions were instrumental in overcoming inter-ethnic hostilities, and played a very important role in expanding the scale of cooperation to truly huge groups of people. All we need to do is take one more step and cooperate at the level of the whole humanity, and Axial religions show how that transition can be done.

Ford Denison

I agree that cooperation (with some people) feels good (to most people). The evolutionary question is, why? Is this a genetic legacy from times when we interacted mainly with relatives? If so, how is the frequency of this complex trait changing over generations?

Peter Turchin

It probably is not changing much. People in all cultures love dancing and singing together. And it’s not restricted to just relatives!

Juan Alfonso del Busto

There is no doubt about it. Collective actions -building community temples- and rituals are an ideal scenario for showing off skill, building a good reputation, show non-aggressive leadership skills and, as a consequence, contribute to firmly establish your place in the hierarchical net. Feeling that you have a secure place in a group, even if it is not in the highest hierarchical place, is a rewarding feeling. No wonder since it entails lots of benefits. Benefits that fitter individuals would not be able to enjoy if they did not were part of a cohessive group.

Collective enterprises and rituals that require energy and sacriffice are the perfect means for demonstrating willingness to cooperate and therefore to build one’s reputation as a reliable cooperator. Costly signal theory tells us that it is not worth it for a free rider to engage in costly behaviors like this. This is the case; Rituals and collective building might be the perfect occasion to show adherence to norms, self-control and to prove yourself a reliable cooperator.

I think Chris is very right. Why would you want to build a giant temple if not because you want to beat the neighbor’s temple?…

I am afraid I don’t agree with Peter. Fighting the neighbors is just one way of competing? Amish don’t need to fight non-amish… They just need to keep their reproduction rate and in a dozen generations half the population of the earth will be amish. Then some war might be necessary, not now…

Peter Richerson

There is some nice experimental work on the effects of joint action. A couple of papers by way of introduction:

Kirschner, S. and M. Tomasello. 2010. Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior 31:354-364.

Sebanz, N., H. Bekkering, and G. Knoblich. 2006. Joint action: bodies and minds moving together. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10:70-76.

Mark Sloan

Peter,“The Joy of Cooperation” is a great title!

Your “Joy of Cooperation” post is consistent with a perspective on the evolution of morality (central to the evolution of societies of course) that I find useful.

I expect uncontroversially:

For our pre-cultural ancestors, reproductive fitness was the only selection force for costly cooperation (evolutionarily ‘moral’ behaviors). Relevant to your post, the biologically evolved ‘means’ of motivating costly cooperation included pleasure in costly cooperation.

With the emergence of culture, moral codes could be selected for based on any benefits people found attractive. The emergence of culture thus forever unhitched morality from being only about reproductive fitness. Pleasure from cooperation, which previously was only a biological ‘means’ of motivating cooperation, could become a new ‘end’ of cooperation, thus leading to morally required rituals and so forth as you point out.

What might be new:

Due to its radically higher efficiency, the emergence of money economies under rule of law made cooperation sustained only by moral behavior largely obsolete as a means for obtaining material goods. But the ‘pleasure’ benefit of moral behaviors remained untouched. As a result, for people who can efficiently obtain material goods from money economies under rule of law, pleasure in the cooperative company of family and friends, morality’s original ‘means’, has become its chief ‘end’.

I find this perspective useful because of the explanatory power that comes from understanding there have been two radical shifts in the function of morality.

For example, these two radical shifts so muddied the water that it is no surprise that the classical Greek philosophers and all moral philosophers since then have had such a hard time understanding morality.

Peter Turchin

Thanks all for comments. Let me clarify that I think the joy of cooperation evolved as a proximate psychological mechanism to induce us to cooperate, but the ultimate (evolutionary) reason was group selection – communities that enjoyed cooperating produced more public goods and outcompeted communities that did not enjoy cooperating. So ultimately it is about producing material benefits; my main point in the post was that proximate psychological mechanisms do not have to be limited to these materialistic motivations.

On other issues.

Juan: I think you are trying too hard to reduce all human behavior to cold-blooded strategic calculation. Emotions probably evolved to streamline the decision process. Instead of weighing pros and contras until it is too late to act, our emotional responses tell us how to behave right away.

Mark: I am not sure at all that the emergence of money economies and rule of law made cooperation based on morals obsolete. Perhaps even the opposite! We need morality even more to make the rule of law work.

Pete: thanks for the refs, as always very useful.

Mark Sloan

Peter, sure, obtaining the psychological benefits of cooperation based only on morals was not made obsolete by the emergence of money economies under rule of law. And a culture without morals (beyond obeying rule of law) would be a grim place.

What I argue became obsolete was obtaining material goods principally by cooperation supported by moral behavior. Obtaining material goods by engagement in a money economy under rule of law is incredibly more efficient than obtaining those material goods by cooperation sustained by moral behavior alone.

Consider if everyone involved in the manufacture of your computer, including the people who mined the metals and drilled for the oil, had to maintain their cooperation based on their moral reputation as good reciprocators. It would be a hopeless project. Cooperation supported only by morality is an obsolete means of cooperating to build a computer.

Mark Sloan

Perhaps a better way to describe the radical shift in morality’s function with the emergence of money economies and rule of law would be as follows.

Costly cooperation strategies in the form of enforced moral norms became obsolete means of obtaining material goods (except within families) because money economies were so much more efficient. As Adam Smith said: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” But costly cooperation strategies in the form of enforced moral norms remain critical to human societies because of their central role in maintaining human psychological well-being. Thus an original means, pleasure in cooperation, for motivating costly cooperation became, with the emergence of money economies and rule of law, its chief end.

Moral behavior more broadly defined than only costly cooperation strategies may well be critical for motivating conforming to rule of law and maintaining the trust necessary for a well-functioning society, but I am not convinced that costly cooperation strategies are necessary. I’ll think some more on that.


However, cooperation supported only by intangible rewards has proved quite effective for producing software.

Kevin Kniffin

Thanks, Peter, for your intro and review of Sci Foo Camp inside the GooglePlex!

To reciprocate Peter R.’s helpful citations, I can add:

Wiltermuth, Scott S., and Chip Heath. “Synchrony and cooperation.” Psychological Science 20.1 (2009): 1-5.

Among other findings… simply having people walk around together in synchrony (e.g., on a campus tour)… can apparently increase cooperation. The finding might be partly due to doing something that’s weird (and funny)… but… it’s nonetheless a neat (and brief) paper.

Peter Turchin

Thanks, Kevin – this is a great addition to the useful articles list (which I perhaps should start sharing here…)

This reminds me of two other books:

McNeill, W. H. (1995). Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Ehrenreich, B. (2006). Dancing in the streets. A History of Collective Joy. New York: Metropolitan. (take a look at this review:

Finally, slightly off-topic, for those who don’t know: Kevin is the author of a great review that shows that inequality is destructive of cooperation:

KM Kniffin (2010). Evolutionary perspectives on salary dispersion within firms. Journal of Bioeconomics 11 (1), 23-42

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