Survey: Americans would like more cooperation in politics and in their lives

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Social scientists have been studying how prone to cooperation human beings are in different societies and game theorists have tried to understand the conditions under which it emerges. The report of the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) emphasises the importance of cooperation across governments to tackle global challenges and preserve the global commons (such as the climate) but it also describes how a “cooperative ethos” among citizens can improve the effectiveness of policies toward social cohesion (e.g., everyone pays taxes, understanding the collective benefit).

It is known that Americans tend to exhibit high cooperative tendencies in experiments in which participants are asked to contribute to public goods. But little is known about how they view the merits of cooperation. Tocqueville argued that Americans seek to rationalise cooperation in terms of self-interest:

“In the United States as well as elsewhere people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses that are natural to man; but the Americans seldom admit that they yield to emotions of this kind.” (Democracy in America, Vol. 2, chapter 8)

In April 2017, the IPSP conducted a survey on an Internet sample of 1,037 individuals representative of the age and race composition of the adult population in the USA, asking questions about how cooperation and competition are perceived and how respondents feel in cooperative vs. competitive situations.

A first question asked respondents to rank various domains of social interaction in terms of competitive or cooperative intensity. Strikingly, the most competitive setting in their view is politics, and this is the only domain where the average score is below 50.

Women see less cooperation than men everywhere, especially in politics, the economy and society. The less religious respondents are similarly giving low scores. The least educated respondents, in contrast, give greater scores, as do the non-whites and the very progressive respondents.

Politics is also the domain in which respondents would like to see more cooperation the most. For all domains, greater cooperation is desired by more respondents than greater competition. The economy is where the support for greater competition is the greatest, which makes a lot of sense given the consensus that competition across firms is preferable to collusion and cartels.

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Greater cooperation is desired more intensely by women, elderly people, and non-religious respondents, whereas high-income respondents are more pro-competition. Conservative respondents are pro-competition for the economy.

People, however, do strongly see competition as a necessary selection device, and are conscious that the degree of cooperation and competition can be influenced by institution design.

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Support for competition as a selection device is weaker than average among women or non-religious respondents, and stronger among non-white, high-income, or conservative respondents.

How do people feel in such situations? The question was the following: “You have been in competitive situations (for instance, applying for a promotion) and in cooperative situations (for instance, preparing an event with others). How would you describe your state of mind in these different situations?” The answers show a clear pattern. Competition and cooperation differ with respect to stress, elation and anger, with cooperation fostering elation and curbing stress as well as anger.

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Women differ by feeling more stressed in competition and less in cooperation. Non-white respondents differ in the opposite direction.

Asked how a greater degree of cooperation would affect their life, respondents confirm that stress is a key factor, and generally see cooperation as promoting positive qualities. Middle-aged and elderly respondents are more positive about the features of cooperation. The answer “good overall” gets a greater score than average from the middle-aged, progressive, or religious respondents. Women, more than men, would find it more pleasant and less stressful.

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Finally, respondents were asked how to protect cooperation against free riders. Incentives are high in the list, but also motivational inspiration. Naming and shaming, which is often considered nowadays for various contexts is viewed as less effective.

Women give lower scores than average to most items, whereas less educated, high-income or very religious respondents give higher scores.

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In contrast, when the same type of question is asked about how to preserve fairness in competitive settings, the motivational tool recedes below straight incentives, although it keeps the same absolute score.

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Pariroo Rattan has helped with analysing the survey results.

This post belongs to a series of contributions coming from the International Panel on Social Progress, a global academic initiative of more than 300 scholars from all social sciences and the humanities who have prepared a report on the perspectives for social progress in the 21st Century.

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