Menu Close
Were we born to work with others or look after number one? Cayusa

On first thought, cooperate; on second thought, be selfish

Are we cooperative or are we selfish? This question goes back as far as the philosophers Rousseau and Hobbes – Rousseau advocated for a “noble savage” model of humanity whereas Hobbes advocated for a “darker” model of humanity.

Now, a recent study by Harvard University’s David G Rand and colleagues provides some compelling evidence in favour of Rousseau’s noble savage position.

Rand and colleagues examined two questions:

1) Are we naturally selfish to the point that being pro-social (voluntarily behaving in a way that benefits others) requires effort?

2) Are we naturally pro-social to the point that being selfish requires effort?

Evidence for cooperation

In a series of studies, Rand and colleagues advanced the case that it is our nature to be cooperative. They used ten studies, each using economic games.

In one, they forced subjects to either decide quickly or spend some time reflecting on how much of their own money they would invest in a communal pool of money.

Their donations were then measured.

Intriguingly, the researchers found the faster someone made a decision to donate a portion of their own money to a communal pool of money, the more likely they were to be selfless in their allocation – in other words, they would donate more when they didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.

The Nature authors contend this effect might be because a cooperative meme is learnt over the course of individuals’ lives, making this tendency easily accessible.


In contrast, because societies tend to punish and discourage selfishness – those who commit crimes are castigated whereas those who do “good” get much less formal attention – defection from social conventions is less characteristic and requires a degree of deliberate thinking.

The idea that selfishness is rational, and needs to be thought about, is reflective of philosopher Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness – the idea that an action is rational only in cases in which it maximises one’s self-interest.

The Nature authors tested their prediction that norms of cooperating are learnt with a priming experiment and some self-report data regarding participants’ perceived experience with cooperative/non-cooperative environments.

And, consistent with that prediction, those subjects who recalled more cooperative environments from their daily lives allocated a greater percentage of their own money to the common pool.


As compelling as the paper by Rand and colleagues is, it has one main limitation. It is based on the Standard Social Sciences Model, which puts culture and learning as the primary influences that dictate human psychology.

In short, the Rand article proposes some people are cooperative because they have experienced cooperative environments while others are selfish because they have experienced non-cooperative environments. This is nearly a truism and is surely based on the flawed carryover assumption from Behaviourism: nurture has greater influence than nature.

loopoboy 2.0

That conjecture is interesting, but a more compelling case could be offered by Life History Theory – which provides detail about how individuals and their environments interact.

The theory predicts that unstable and harsh (non-cooperative) environments necessitate selfishness, whereas stable and safe (cooperative) environments lead to cooperative tendencies.

I have made the case elsewhere that selfish tendencies such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism are associated with unstable and harsh environments.

Put simply, harsh environments might activate a “short-term, take it when I can get it” mentality in someone; whereas, when life is good, one’s cooperative tendencies can shine.

Yes, but why?

The Life History model makes clear predictions that could account for the effects in the Nature article.

It does not suggest people do not learn to be cooperative or not – quite the opposite. What it does offer (and what would make the Rand article better) is a pre-existing reason why information about the cooperative/non-cooperative nature of one’s environment has an effect on the cooperative/non-cooperative nature of individuals.

By combining different experimental methodologies, Rand and colleagues make a strong case for the existence of the cooperation-first, defect-second behaviour.

The paper answers the “how” question (the process behind this behaviour); next, research needs to answer the “why” question (what is the function of people’s ability to alter their selfishness in response to environmental contingencies?).

The take-home message is clear: self-interest is the deliberative choice but cooperation is the intuitive one.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 170,900 academics and researchers from 4,739 institutions.

Register now