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12 Sep 2011

Cooperation vs. Self-interest: Which Reigns Supreme?

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Cooperation vs. Self-interest

Recently, Harvard Business Review focused its July-August 2011 issue on collaboration. It connected so well and deeply with my own experiences that I decided to write a series of posts dedicated to Cooperation versus Self-interest. I wrote previously about this on the business-to-business level, but the focus here will be on individuals.

I was further intrigued when I ran across in The New Yorker an article* discussing the research of Michael Tomasello and others at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. It found that a critical difference between the intelligence of apes and children was the collective problem solving and cooperation of the latter. This indicates there is something natural about cooperating. So, I ask: Which is supreme, cooperation or self-interest?

Yochai Benkler’s cites in his article “The Unselfish Gene” from the above issue of the Harvard Business Review that only “a large minority of people – about 30% – behave as though they are selfish” while another “50% systematically and predictably behave cooperatively.” The remainders accounting for 20% “are unpredictable, sometimes choosing to cooperate” and others times to behave selfishly.

Of course, this has huge implications. How many times have we been told that in order to change people’s behavior we have to answer “What’s in it for me?” Consequently, we’ve become so programmed to believe that people’s self-interest is the only thing that motivates them. As a result, people fill our expectations: we can only motivate them by appealing to their self-interests.

What this research suggests is that perhaps we’ve been letting the self-interested ones make the rules for the rest of us. In reality, many of us truly enjoy working with others even if it might cost us something. That enjoyment is worth something and reigns supreme for us.


*Elizabeth Kolbert, “Sleeping with the Enemy,” The New Yorker, p. 71, August 15 & 22, 2011 [Note: I could not provide a link to this article because of access restrictions to non-subscribers.]


Series NavigationCooperation vs. Self-interest (Pt 2): Context – The Great Influencer >>

5 Responses

  1. I enjoyed reading this series. The idea of Cooperation over Competition has been a compelling one for me. I do not operate in th business world, but have entertained the idea of sharing some views. I did infact begin a blog, but failed to pursue it. If you will indulge me, I wrote some thoughts thus….

    The competitive mind is full of ideas on how to get ahead; how to overcome; how to battle and thwart all opponents. This is the single delusion of a mind in the competitive state – It believes in division and therefore believes it must protect itself, this is the effect of any consciousness that is rooted in the idea of separation.

    The overwhelmingly vast majority of humanity looks out at a world through these fearful eyes, through eyes that tell of danger and scarcity, that tell of struggle and strife. That is the nature of this type of conditioned thinking where the animal instinct of survival takes the prominent role, not always exclusively so, but certainly it is the most powerful motivating force for humanity at present.

    So competition is birthed from this perspective and ‘natural’ science backs up this story, Darwinian theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ appears to fit the jigsaw perfectly and is adopted to support the continuity of the conflicted state.

    But what is overlooked in all of this clever philosophizing is one simple question that, once asked would change the whole story, and that question …”What am I?”

    If one assumed themselves to be exclusively the animal – the body mind- then the foregoing criteria will most often apply. However if consideration is given to what is actually at the root of this living organism, what is actually making the decisions, what is breathing, seeing, beating the heart, indeed causing the very thinking process itself! What is giving rise to all this wonderful complexity, what is its source, its fountain?

    Then one may (I say may) just become aware of a depth of stillness, an awareness that the division that is seen through the physical eyes is not necessarily the whole story, that this appearance may not be what it purports to be from the limited view of the animal mind.

    Perhaps when one sinks into the depth of stillness within themselves they will glimpse the grandeur and majesty of something magnificent, something completely connected with all things, something that knows that the idea of separation is merely an illusion.

    This is the view of the compassionate heart, it sees division on the surface like any other being, yet it is not fooled by these appearances. It lives in, as, and from this compassionate knowing, thrives and rides upon the waves of existence, freely and openly expressing itself from the fathomless depths of stillness.

    Competition is abandoned for care, struggle for acceptance, as life unfolds without effort or strife. No longer is the chuntering mind paid any heed, its stories of gloom and doom whilst still vying for attention, no longer hold any potency or reality, being long-since consigned to the swollen ranks of idiocy.

    The compasisonate heart of truth delights is all expressions of life, dancing amongst multitude expressions, neither condemning nor coercing life, but celebrating and enjoying every aspect with a complete freedom. A freedom bourne of wisdom and Love, and a freedom that needs nothing to be any different from the way it is appearing in the moment.

    This kind of freedom is beyond distinction, beyond seeking and far beyond ideas of competing. This freedom is the freedom that discovers one can be ‘in the world but not of it.’

    All the Best
    Deon UK

    1. Thank you, Deon, for your well contemplated, heart-felt reply. We are connected, integrated with our world and with each other. We cannot be wealthy without others; for it’s through others we prosper not only financially but also intellectually and emotionally. It’s through sharing with others what we have to offer and through accepting what others have to share, that we all become better.

      Thank you for visiting, Deon. See you again soon. ~Mike

  2. I am a proponent of cooperation over WIIFM. I never have liked the selfish and self serving message that it represents. I think of the relationship as if I had a team of people working together to accomplish a goal of moving a mountain for the purpose of creating a direct route that splits into many directions and then there is the guy who is only concerned with his particular path. The cooperation of the collective will achieve the goal to move the mountain by tackling it together whereas the man concerned with only his own path takes much longer and in the process secludes himself from others. Such is the way with change in an organization when many people from different departments come together for the good of all.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you, Hardy. You’re a perfect example of someone who also finds it rewarding and perhaps even fun to work with others. Yes, the goal is important, but many times it’s the journey we make with others in a cooperative effort that is the most influential and joyful in our lives. I appreciate you stopping for a visit. I look forward to seeing you again soon. ~Mike

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