The Dark Side Of Cooperation

A few hours ago I heard a talk by Frans De Waal, author of the great classic “Chimpanzee Politics,” on his new book, “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” (excerpt here).  Before and during his talk, De Waal showed a deep understanding of animal empathy and sociality, but he never once mentioned any of the lessons for humans his subtitle promised.   I inquired in the Q&A, saying: if humans show about as much empathy to each other as related species do, what more lessons can we learn from nature?

He said the lesson is that it is bad to have societies “like the US, based on social Darwinism”, as revealed by its shameful response to Hurricane Katrina and reluctance to support Obamacare.  I pressed: humans have some empathy, even in the US, so how can we tell what the right amount is?  A bit later I pressed: how can we tell who should show empathy for someone in need: their family, neighborhood, city, state, nation, continent, planet, or what?  Other than repeating that the US should do more, and that it is nations who are responsible, he had no further comment (though he had ample time).

Alas, I conclude that while De Waal is very smart and feels strongly on this topic, he seems incapable of even the most basic analysis of it.  He has a slogan, which identifies him with his side, and that is all he, or his readers, seek.  Sorta like folks who sing “Love is all you need.”

One might argue that empathy is good because it promotes cooperation.  But a striking experiment in the latest AER shows the dark side of cooperation; better cooperation within teams that fight each other can lead to far more destruction and waste.

In the one-on-one version of the experiment, subjects are paired and each side gets a budget of 1000 tokens, some of which can be spent fighting over a common prize of another 1000 tokens.  That prize is distributed in proportion to tokens spent fighting for it.  For example, if you spent 300 and your opponent spent 100 tokens fighting, then you’d get 750 and they’d get 250 of the prize tokens.  Together with the 700 you didn’t spend fighting, you’d end up with 1450 tokens.

The one-shot Nash equilibrium here is for each side to spend 250 tokens fighting, and walk away with 1250; half of the prize is destroyed in the struggle.  The same opponents interact for twenty (or 40) rounds, and if that allowed perfect coordination between the opponents, they’d each contribute 1 token to the fight and walk away with 1499; only 0.2% of the prize would be destroyed.

There was also a team-on-team version of the experiment.  Four people on each side could contribute to their side’s fighting pot, and a 1000 token per person prize is again distributed in proportion to the relative size of the pots.  Sharing a pot creates a free rider problem; each team member would rather that other members contribute more to the fight.  This reduces the one-shot Nash fighting contributions to 63, so that each walks away with 1437; only 1/8 of the prize is destroyed in the struggle.

Finally they tried teams with internal punishment.  Each token a team member spent punishing another would destroy three of that person’s tokens.  If such punishment allowed teams to coordinate perfectly, we’d be back to one-on-one equilibria.

The actual experimental results are summarized in this figure:


In the one-on-one version, subjects were far more eager to fight, relative to one-shot Nash predictions, on average destroying all of the prize.  They fought less as time passed, but even after forty rounds fought far more than Nash suggests.  Free-riding did reduce team efforts, though only down to the Nash level for individuals.  And punishment enabled teams to coordinate to destroy more than the whole prize, an effect that doesn’t seem to diminish with time.

So, relative to what simple uncoordinated self-interest would predict, humans are far more eager to fight each other.  And while punishment does allow teams to coordinate internally, teams completely fail to coordinate with each other; instead they coordinate to fight so hard that they destroy more than what they fight over.  And this is all with the usual cold clinical experimental framing:

Group contests with punishment opportunities can be extremely destructive. Contests between groups that rely solely on their members’ voluntary contributions to the collective effort are already characterized by investments in fighting far above equilibrium, but it is the addition of punishment possibilities that drives contest expenditure levels at the end of the experiments to about six times the equilibrium levels. … We find these outcomes in the abstract, anonymous environment of a laboratory experiment, in absence of any ethnic, religious or class division between the groups. Emotional forces related to rivalry between conflict parties can be conjectured to be much more intense in field environments involving parties that may have been in conflict for a long time.

This, this, is human nature.  Be thankful coordination is hard, so rival groups often fail to coordinate internally.

Added 14Apr: De Wall responds, and I reply.

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  • Bill

    Why fight biology if it is oriented towards empathy?

  • Bill

    Actually, these results are consistent with punishment games where people believe they were not treated fairly, and are willing to inflict punishment on persons who treated them unfairly even if it costs them something.

    Bottom line: be fair in the first place. Easier to achieve a cooperative equalibrium in a second game.

  • I was reading Peter Turchin’s “War & Peace & War” recently, and he seemed much more enthusiastic about our ability to cooperate due to the high presence of “moralists” engaging in altruistic punishment when constituting a majority (as opposed to free-rider “knaves” or altruistic “saints”). He looks down on economists and Dawkins-inspired evolutionary biologists for their focus on selfishness. He never seems to give any thought to the question of whether two teams are better off if both of them have more “asabiya”, perhaps because he focuses on a Malthusian world were expending population (particularly of elites who lead the military or other violent factions) doesn’t hurt long-run growth, but rather gives a brief respite to overpopulation.

    Your final sentence reminded me of my old post arguing we should be thankful that diversity reduces investment in social capital.

    • Contemplationist

      In light of your last sentence teegee, how would you describe your ‘paleo’-ism, i.e. immigration restrictionist stance.

  • I thought of a similar example during the lecture. De Waal admitted that empathy could have awful results: to know what torture works, we need empathy. But my first image was of trade barriers and immigration restrictions. De Waal claimed that empathy was largely an in-group function. But if we feel much more empathetic to our in-groups, empathy with their interests over that of outgroups is almost sure to be harmful a large portion of the time.

  • Jess Riedel

    I assume the primary example of this is supposed to be intra-nation cooperation enabling inter-nation wars, which kill on a larger scale than is possible between smaller groups.

    Is this what really happens? If we correct for the fact that as time goes on (and the world get richer) fewer people are killed in wars, is it true that better intra-nation cooperation leads to more/deadlier wars?

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  • John

    Hmmm, so:

    1) Cooperation has a dark side.
    2) “One might argue that empathy is good because it promotes cooperation.”
    3) Therefore, empathy is suspect.

    Am I missing something?

    • Proper Dave

      Nope your not missing something, Robin is just signaling (or tryin to) how contrarian and smart he is! Who would have thought that empathy kills? Only Robin of course! (there must be many mirrors in his house…)

      The only reply to this “relevation” would be a sarcastic / mocking:

      “Emphathy doesn’t kill people, people kill people…”


    • Proper Dave


      My take away from this is. Empathy promotes co-operation, now in wealthy modern societies for many of us this demands payments from our incomes rather than actually going and saving katrina victims.

      Now to prevent such things like Katrina and universal health care in the USA will require payment from everyone. Of course this payment is very real for obvious reasons… otherwise I won’t be asked to make it. Also it will be marginal nobody is being forced to “sacrifice” necessities or even comfort etc.
      This cooperation will increase the general welfare.

      Thus stuff like hurricane preparedness and obamacare is not only feel good, but is actually beneficial… who would have thought… (you have your causal relationship reversed, it isn’t beneficial because it feels good, it feels good because it is beneficial. Because it is beneficial ,“Love is all you need.”)
      And we have Empathy and Cooperation to thank for it!

      But I get the idea that Robin doesn’t like the “demand payment” part… but he doesn’t have a leg to stand on empathy and cooperation is beneficial.
      So maybe there is something “wrong” with empathy after all and I will just conveniently ignore all the evidence that doesn’t correspond with my like/dislike. Now it is a non-brainer that some types of cooperation can be harmfull, we even have a word for it conspiracy.
      There is also another cool word it is called Rationalization.

  • Scott

    Well, if all or the vast majority of the test subjects were American then doesn’t that lend some credibility to De Waal’s responses? Maybe the results would be different if the subjects were from other countries and/or cultures.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Breaking news: Robin once again presents the most negative take possible on a given subject. 🙂

  • Future Chimp

    “Be thankful coordination is hard, so rival groups often fail to coordinate internally.” Are human political liberals more like bonobos with more sexual promiscuity than chimpanzees? Are human political conservatives more like male chimpanzees forming groups for violence and rape? Are human political division and human financial greed the two factors that guarantee the development of superhuman intelligence? Will beings with superhuman intelligence fully discover the informational basis of mammalian life and then exterminate the vast majority of human beings? Will people discover in two or three decades how brutal and merciless Darwinian evolution really is?

  • DD

    On a related note: What if we would replace “teams” by “nations”. Would then any mechanism that makes coordination harder within nations prevent destructive wars as compared to mechanisms that make coordination easy?

  • Rob
    • That is a good post, making De Waals blind spots all the more striking.

      • John

        Except for the fact that power, dominance, and social hierarchy are at the center of most of the literature on political science, history, and anthropology, and philosophy for the past few decades (however absent they may be from social psychology textbooks).

        But whatever. The point is that an unconvincing argument for something is no proof against it. Why dismiss and disparage empathy based on someone else’s bad argument for it?

        What’s the definition of bias again?

  • y81

    As someone commented about Jean-Paul Sartre, all that “existence” and “essence” and “good faith” stuff, and all that deep understanding of Hegel and Heidegger and whoever, always led to the conclusion that one should support the Party line of the moment, whatever it was. Similarly, modern academic research always proves that Obama is good, Bush is bad. Which is why I am not an existentialist, or a donor to any of my almae matres.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: “Be thankful coordination is hard, so rival groups often fail to coordinate internally.”

    If coordination was easy, everyone would do it – and then there would be no battles, because we would all be on the same side as one another.

  • Tim Tyler

    While this is a good post, I think we already know how to have large collective competitions without lots of collateral damage:

    Corporations are huge collective agents, far more powerful than individual humans are, Yet in their battles, relatively few humans actually get hurt. This is basically down to the virtualisation of warfare.

  • Jackson

    I thought perhaps the most important feature of de Waal’s work was how it showed how deeply innate it is for Capuchin (sp?) monkeys to feel aggrieved if a peer recieves a greater reward or prize for little or no effort. The reason there is so much pirating, and free downloading… so many people paying little or no heed to the ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ i.e. someone somewhere is having to pay problem is that they’ve colluded with inherent unfairness, sublimating their displeasure, because they’ve been seduced into the notion that to cry foul would be to undermine a system that they will (probably already have) benefit from greatly… soon. Consquently, they assume everybody is inherently unfair, if they can download their work for free, excellent! Got one over the bastard!

  • groo

    Frans De Waal.

    Too busy spelling names correctly.
    Please slow down!

    A ‘signal’ so self should be when one repeatedly is stating the obvious.(dubious)

    Nazi Germans were good at ‘cooperation’.
    The result was terrible.
    Therfore: ‘Cooperation’ is dubious.

    Funny that.

    This far out ‘syllogism’ should render some thought, should’nt it?

    ‘OB’ seems to me to violate at times -among others- the predicament of the basics of our existence:
    The rift between the factual and the normative.

    Would be interesting to know how Robin H. would comment on von Foersters famous dictum:

    “Only about the undecidable we can decide”, which is THE normative dictum!

    Which is only implicitly covered here.

    Actually it can be decided, within the frame implied:
    It is the conditions!

    De Waal takes a NORMATIVE position, which he maybe does not make explicit, or does not provide the ‘ultimate facts’.
    (Maybe he is on the normative side of matters?)

    Neither does Robin H.

    The point of convergence (to me) is the point (better: grey-zone) of undecidability between facts and norms.

    Yesterday I watched a documentary about someone educating and wildering out Kamtchatka bears.

    Far more convincing!

    People operating in the grey zone and actually making a difference!

    And PROVING something!

  • Doug S.

    Are these results explained if people care about relative wealth more than absolute wealth?

  • I see a problem a bit further back: in the temptation to draw normative conclusions about human life from studies of the behavior of apes. Such normative conclusions follow only by means of all sorts of suppressed normative premises, such as the definition of the ‘best outcome.’ What one can safely say is that we ought not to have social institutions that require that human beings be other than they are. So, on the basis of the evidence here and on what de Waal presented, I would say we shouldn’t have a system that requires human beings to be entirely altruistic, nor entirely competitive. But there are many social, political, and economic arrangements that are compatible with all these data.

  • Future Chimp

    “… relative to what simple uncoordinated self-interest would predict, human beings are far more eager to fight each other.” In Dawkins’s book “The Selfish Gene” did Dawkins fail to emphasize two important points: (1) human behavior influenced by genes evolved in an environment with no or exceedingly slow technological progress and (2) in human psychology the dominance hierarchies and the zero-sum games usually outweigh the individual freedoms and the win-win games?
    Are libertarians and technological optimists fundamentally wrong about the future? Is Ray Kurzweil correct that superhuman intelligence shall arrive by 2029 CE or soon thereafter? Is Kurzweil fundamentally wrong in assuming that superhuman intelligence will be a net blessing for people? Will it be fun to be like mice, rats, or hamsters in a solar system of superior intelligences? Is superhuman intelligence unstoppable because of three basic factors: (1) optimists bring forth technological progress, (2) human greed drives technological progress, and (3) human political division makes a moratorium on technological progress totally unworkable? Are people like Ray Kurzweil and his followers optimistically and happily preparing a crushing, irreversible downfall of the entire human species?

  • Looking around, it seems cooperation is a good deal overall given modern methods for diffusing conflict (both within groups and between them). Probably cooperation is good on the margin too?

  • Robin: “I pressed: humans have some empathy, even in the US, so how can we tell what the right amount is?”

    Herein lies the problem. I had the impression that you wanted me, like a real economist, to come up with a number (like 24.5% more empathy is needed), that you wanted to know with great specificity how much more empathy is desirable and where exactly we would need it.

    My main point is that instead of thinking that concern for others is some late addition to our history that arrived with culture and religion, as some people believe, we need to start thinking of it as part of human nature. The idea that we are only in it for ourselves, and that appeals to the common good go against our “right of the strongest” biology are my main concern. Empathy is very much part of our make-up, and I gladly leave it to economists to decide what to do with this knowledge, but for the moment many resist since accepting this as fact implies a different framework than the one we are used to, which revolves entirely around incentives.

    Remember the Monty Python banker I showed, who only understood incentives ….

    Here it is:

    • Economists have well developed tools for concluding that a number is too high or too low, without ever needing to say what exactly the value of the number is. For example, we expect there to be too much pollution when polluters don’t have to pay for the harm they impose on distant others. We can know this without knowing just how much pollution there is. My point was that you’d need some sort of argument like that to conclude that we show too little empathy for each other in the US.

      I’m happy to grant that empathy is ancient, and common today, and most economists admit this as well. Incentives remain relevant, however, even when empathy exists.

  • mbk

    Striking study. It has a ring of Koestler to it re: the destructiveness of group allegiance.

    I could see how social ostracism can lead to suboptimal results (herd behavior) regardless of any motivation issues (prize) simply because the individuals’ own judgments are suppressed in favor of a common judgment. And that goes against the whole Polanyi / Hayek idea of the distribution of information in society, especially the concept that the sum of distributed local knowledge is greater than the collected centralized knowledge and its plans.

    It appears that in this study the groups that could not punish did much better than the groups that could, and in the absolute they did better than the individuals too ( though not relative to the equilibrium). That is a powerful argument for the wisdom of the crowds and against forced collective organization.

    In addition: I fail to see why the feeling of empathy should have much to do with the makeup or organization of a society to begin with. Empathy is a personal feeling, usually linked to personal proximity, and display of emotion. We empathize with our friends for instance, even when they are objectively in the wrong in some societal situation. So empathy can not serve as basis for a general rule in society – people inevitably empathize with different target individuals or groups.

    Be the mechanism for this mirror neurons or something else, empathy is personal and usually local in time and space. In large and complex societies it is hard to see how empathy alone could conceivably generate a form of complex organization even if the target issue didn’t exist. True, empathy fuels charity work, but that is a very small subset of social organization. I also don’t see at all why top down coordination mandated by collectively decided global empathetic goals should yield higher utility outcomes than piecemeal individual (market) coordination. In fact this is precisely a problem for charities as well – they are often not efficient.

    Empathy as driver of economic exchange is a deeply flawed concept and the polar opposite of Adam Smith, for a lot of reasons that have been studied extensively since.

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