The future of human cooperation: Some minuscule evidence

I look at the table of content and some abstracts in several journals, and, last week, one abstract really caught my attention. Here is how it begins:

“Globalization magnifies the problems that affect all people and that require large-scale human cooperation, for example, the overharvesting of natural resources and human-induced global warming. However, what does globalization imply for the cooperation needed to address such global social dilemmas? Two competing hypotheses are offered. One hypothesis is that globalization prompts reactionary movements that reinforce parochial distinctions among people. Large-scale cooperation then focuses on favoring one’s own ethnic, racial, or language group. The alternative hypothesis suggests that globalization strengthens cosmopolitan attitudes by weakening the relevance of ethnicity, locality, or nationhood as sources of identification. In essence, globalization, the increasing interconnectedness of people worldwide, broadens the group boundaries within which individuals perceive they belong. We test these hypotheses…”

Are humans getting better at living together, as one hopes, or are we heading towards a world of moral, political and material misery, as one may fear? This is indeed a major issue, and I would welcome any contribution to a better understanding of it. So I read the paper, “Globalization and human cooperation” by Nancy R. Buchan, Gianluca Grimalda Rick Wilson, Marilynn Brewer, Enrique Fatas, and Margaret Foddy (PNAS, March 17, 2009 vol. 106 no. 11 4138-4142).

Could an experiment really help us decide between an optimistic and a pessimistic view? Here is what the authors did.

They had people in six countries, Argentina, Iran, Italy, Russia, South Africa, Russia, and the United States participate in a n economic game, a kind of “multilevel sequential contribution experiment.” Participants were given 10 tokens (worth each US $ 0.50). They could keep them without loss or gain, or put them in a local account to which three other people from the same local community might also contribute, or put them in a global account made up of their local group of 4 plus two other 4-person groups from different countries. There was a risk of loss but also a chance of gain in putting tokens in the local account, and a risk of greater loss together with a chance of greater gain in putting tokens in the global account, the gains depending on the decisions of other participants to  behave cooperatively by contributing to these common accounts.

The authors rank countries and individual participants on the basis of a Country Globalization Index and Individual Globalization Index and predict for both indexes, that the more people are in a globalized environment, the more they will contribute to the world account, and the data confirms this prediction. “We find,” the authors write,” that as country and individual levels of globalization increase, so too does individual cooperation at the global level vis-à-vis the local level. In essence, ‘globalized’ individuals draw broader group boundaries than others, eschewing parochial motivations in favor of cosmopolitan ones. Globalization may thus be fundamental in shaping contemporary large-scale cooperation and may be a positive force toward the provision of global public goods.”

I won’t even begin to argue the point that these experimental results provide only minuscule evidence relevant to the hypotheses they are meant to test. But at least they do provide some evidence that, however modestly, addresses the issue. What I would like to see now is not so much ways to challenge this particular work by going the usual route of modifying some parameters so as to get results pointing to a different conclusion – this will no doubt happen as it should, but so what? No, thanks to this article, I am now aware of a much more serious challenge: Are there ways, experimental, surveys, ethnographic, or some multi-pronged approach that would help us address the issue with greater depth and confidence? Shouldn’t we strive to work out such ways?


  • comment-avatar
    Colin Holbrook 31 March 2009 (01:56)

    Interesting,ambitious article. I was a little troubled by two things- the way they discussed “globalization” and the presumed salvific power of identifying with One Big Group. First, they seemed to conflate the economic sense of the term “globalization” with, for instance, Americans caring about the World Cup or Bollywood movies or humanitarian concerns abroad. Clearly commerce promotes this somewhat but it seems there is a big difference, too. For instance, anti-globalization activists are completely “global” by these criteria. Second, scholars of intergroup processes often call for One Big Group, which supposedly will lead to a more enlightened humanity. A lot of research is directed toward figuring out what leads people to identify with larger and more inclusive groups as if this were going to automatically help. But individuals have long been shown to maximize self-interest over group ties in economic studies (and in real history). The tragedy of the commons holds for One Big Group, too.

  • comment-avatar
    Garett Jones 25 April 2009 (22:59)

    That’s the title of my recent paper published in JEBO, an economics journal. It touches on this issue of why some groups cooperate more than others. I find that at high-SAT-score schools, students cooperate in repeated prisoner’s dilemma experiments about a third more often than at typical schools. Economist Aldo Rustichini, in a new working paper, finds that high-IQ individuals offer more in the first round of a trust game. So both papers give evidence that high-IQ groups are more likely to create and sustain cooperative outcomes. Since average IQ correlates about 0.7 or 0.8 with log GDP per worker (a point I make in my Journal of Economic Growth and Economic Inquiry articles) it seems that group differences in current cognitive skills are too big to ignore.