Cooperation w/o Calculation. Good for You. Good for your Rep.

CooperationWe often help others without weighing the costs and benefits…. People even risk their own lives for a stranger, acting without considering the danger. This presents an evolutionary puzzle, because such uncalculating cooperation seems to ignore self-interest. So why do people help others without calculating, even when doing so might come at a great cost?”*

Why do people help others for nothing in return? The answer is: It’s not for nothing. For one big thing, unselfish regard for others, altruism, is not 100% unselfish, when we consider that it helped perpetuate our species, with the mother/infant relationship being a primary example of that. Here and now – in work, play, love, and life – giving without expectation of return makes us look good and who doesn’t want that? ‘I’ll scratch your back. It’s fine; you don’t have to scratch mine. In fact, I hope you don’t because it’ll make me look really good if I give you something for nothing in return.’ This is exactly what the North American Indian Potlatch is about. The potlatch is an over the top gift-giving feast arranged precisely for the purpose of making the party giver look good. S/he who gives the most wins the most status and best reputation. Evolutionary psychology tells us that those with the best reps have the best access to resources and the most power to divvy them up. Big part of why we see people snuggling up to high status others. If we can’t be one, it’s good to be in good favor of one, and I suppose we could say that’s a form of cooperation too. In fact, we may be altogether more wired for cooperation than we may think.

According to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center studies, chimps picked cooperation over competition 5 times as much, which they suggest is the way it is for humans too. Other scientists have even discovered a “generosity” part of our brain, the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, which was seen to activate when people were learning to help others. And get this: Turns out the gray matter in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex is significantly smaller in people who are depressed. Wait…could that be why we hear so frequently that giving to others is a great way to cheer yourself up?

Trouble is that sometimes we think too immediate and too small to give unselfishly because fairness matters too. There is even a part of the brain, the striatum, found to be associated with fairness. So we do calculate sometimes, tit for tatting, to make sure we are getting our due, to make sure things feel fair. But then, there goes our opportunity to experience and express cooperation without calculation, and all the benefits to self and others that go along with that.

What to do? Well, setting one’s mind to do more good for others, without expectation of return, could show us how good that feels, encouraging us to do more. On the other hand, making oneself do it to feel good can feel calculating in and of itself. But, for many people** there are times when, without forcing themselves at all, there has been an urge to do a kindness for another that was met with a strong and swift “Why should I?” inside their head. The answer to “Why should I?” is that it does no good for anyone to be hoarding goodness, if we are doing too much of that too much of the time. So, especially when the urge to do good for another comes up naturally, we may express this part of our humanity, simply saying to ourselves, “Oh, there goes ‘why should I’ again,” taming it to move forward in kindness instead. We may even begin with something as simple as extending a heartfelt smile. Practice, practice, practice, and see what happens.

To work on this or something else, would love to hear from you:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

* “Reputation improves for those who give without calculation,” http://phys.org/news/2016-07-reputation.html

**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.

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