Psychological experiment revealed the best ways to get people to cooperate with you

(ORDO NEWS) — Collective action is often the key to dramatic social or environmental change, whether it be reducing pollution and waste, reducing overfishing by finding alternative sources, or getting more scientists to openly share data with others.

However, collective action can be fraught with social dilemmas. This is due to the fact that the choice in favor of altruistic actions can be associated with certain personal costs. Collaboration and communication are key to solving such problems.

Our new research, published in the journal Rationality and Society, sheds light on how best to get people to cooperate in these situations.

In the world of economics, collaborative decisions are often explored in laboratory games such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Public Goods Game.

The public goods game is one of the best examples of a cooperative situation: participants must secretly choose how many of their personal tokens to put into a public bank that everyone can benefit from.

An interesting aspect of the cooperative situation in this game and many others is that it exposes each member of the group to uncertainty, which is a fundamental source of social dilemma.

Even if an individual member of the group can cooperate by sharing his resources, he cannot be sure that someone else will do it. Therefore, if you cooperate, you take risks, which means that the first step towards cooperation can be seen as altruistic.

Understanding that others may not cooperate can be frustrating. This may encourage some to opt for “loose loading”, ie less or no cooperation, while still benefiting from the potential joint action of others. Scientists consider the first such step to be selfish.

What do people usually do in such situations? It depends on what other factors people take into account, such as the social status they occupy in the group, as well as the type of resources they forgo.

In reality, these kinds of decisions are often made in situations that involve discussion with other people. The aspect of communication here can be crucial. Communication helps group members assess the intentions of others and gives them the opportunity to convince their colleagues to work together.

However, this represents another form of uncertainty. We know that people don’t always do what they say. For example, they may signal virtue speaking in a way that appears virtuous and authoritative without actually intending to cooperate.

Talk is cheap

To explore the impact of communication on collaboration, we divided 90 people into groups of five. Each member of the group had to complete a task that involved money: squeezing the handle of the device several times in order to receive a small reward each time.

Each member of the group had the choice of either keeping the money for themselves each time (free trip) or depositing it in the group bank (collaboration). The money that ended up in the group bank was multiplied by 1.5 each time – twice as much as could be earned individually.

Two other important elements of the experimental setup helped us understand more precisely the impact of communication on cooperative behavior.

Participants had to choose whether to cooperate under certain circumstances. Under the conditions of “possible virtue signaling”, each participant had to say before completing the task how many times he intended to share the money he had earned, and he was informed that this information would be passed on to the rest of the group.

In the “money in the mouth” condition, each member was told that the actual number of times they would share the money would be communicated to the rest of the group. In the “blind flight” condition, however, no information was given to the rest of the group.

After each group member completed the task, all five group members entered the group chat where they could discuss the task and the information (for at least two conditions) that was presented to them.

After the group chat, they completed the task again, and each was paid the amount they earned personally, as well as the amount the group earned.

What happened?

People were much more cooperative under “possible virtue signaling” and “money in the mouth” conditions than under “blind flying” conditions. So knowing that your intentions or actions would be communicated to the group made a difference. But how much difference was determined by what was discussed in the group chat?

A direct correlation was found between the extent to which the group reached a consensus on cooperation and the extent to which it actually cooperated. In other words, when people said things that helped the group reach consensus, they ended up acting in concert.

Our research shows that avoiding phrases that indicate hedging and ambiguity helps people collaborate.

Uncertainty about the size of your intended contribution: “I’ll give more next time,” as well as offering a conditional contribution: “I’ll give more if everyone else does this,” will contribute to distrust in the group and reduce people’s sense of responsibility. Ultimately, this will prevent the group from reaching a cooperation agreement.

The best approach, as seen in the example above, is to be explicit and specific in the promises you make regarding your contribution.

It is also important to ask the whole group a direct question asking about the expected contribution of each. This encourages each member of the group to make a commitment, and if someone evades a question, that’s a useful signal.

The communication style we use can also make a difference. Speaking in a way that demonstrates solidarity and authority will reinforce the group’s collective identity and set the standard for cooperation. Humor and warmth also help.

On the other hand, we found that groups using more formal and self-serving communication styles, such as those associated with the world of business and politics, were less cooperative.

In short, demonstrating strong leadership through affirmative statements, expressing support through motivational phrases, and making people feel like they belong in your group are good first steps to getting others to cooperate.


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