Behavioral economics research suggests that people can be divided roughly into three categories: homo economicus, homo recipricans, and homo communicus.
“Studies from behavioral economics suggest that about 20%–30% of people are purely selfish by nature, like H. economicus; about 50% are conditional cooperators (H. reciprocans); and about 20%–30% are very prosocial (H. communicus).” (p. 250 of Ecological Economics, Principles and Applications by Herman E Daly and Josh Farley)
If you accept that this is a decent description of how real people make choices, you are accepting that approximately 70-80% of the people you meet every day are either predisposed to or ready to reciprocate cooperative behavior. Of course, you also have to accept that 70-80% of the people you meet are either predisposed to or ready to reciprocate selfish behavior. It follows that, at least in theory, the people you meet are just as likely to reciprocate cooperation as selfishness.
What do we mean by selfish, cooperative and conditional?
In this essay, I explore the implications of this distribution, but first, let’s set some boundaries around the terms. Descriptors such as “purely selfish”, “prosocial”, “cooperative” and “conditional” can be hard to apply in complex contexts, and presumably most of us don’t usually divide up our fellow human beings into categories like homo economicus, communicus and recipricans. Still, for the purposes of this discussion, perhaps we can accept the following:
- Some of us tend to make choices with the intention of serving our own narrowly-defined self-interest, irrespective of other people’s interests. In the discussion below, I refer to people who show this sort of selfish behavior as homo economicus. Homo economicus behavior does not necessarily include actions taken with the clear intention to harm others or undermine their interests. At least in theory, homo economicus only takes actions undermining the interests of others if this seems to be the best way to pursue his/her own self-interest. Purely anti-social or malevolent behavior would fall outside the scope of this discussion, though in the real world, the distinction between self-interested and anti-social behavior might not always be clear.
- Some of us tend to make choices with the intention of balancing or subordinating our narrowly-defined self-interest with/to the interests of other people. In the discussion below, I refer to these people as homo communicus. In this discussion, I do not make a clear distinction between altruistic behavior (which subordinates one’s own interest to that of others) and behavior guided by what I refer to as “enlightened self-interest” (the belief that I serve my own interests best when I also take into account the interests of other people). I assume that people who demonstrate cooperative behavior probably do so because of some combination of altruism and enlightened self-interest.
- Some of us tend to make choices based on our experience and expectations relating to the behavior of our counterparts. If we expect or experience selfishness in others, we make selfish choices. If we expect or experience cooperativeness in others, we make cooperative choices. In the discussion below, I refer to these people as homo recipricans.
While at the level of theory it is easy to distinguish between these three types of decision-makers, in the real world, things are probably more nuanced. Moreover, people’s decisions are influenced by factors other than just the pursuit of interests.
Granting the above qualifications, though, the implications of the 25/50/25 distribution across these three categories are still intriguing.
The world as a market and relationships as forums for exchange and competition
While the 25/50/25 distribution implies that the people around us are just as likely to behave in a cooperative as selfish manner, somehow our daily experience does not seem to reflect these equal odds. Many of our business, political and even social arrangements feel like they are predicated on the unquestioned assumption that homo economicus is the dominant mode of human interaction. We are constantly primed to see the world in which we live as a market, in which many selfish agents, including ourselves interact through a series of exchanges and competitions in which one party gains an advantage at the expense of the other(s). Even discussions of synergistic relationships and exchanges predicated on comparative advantage often feel like euphemistic descriptions concealing a series of zero sum games that leave the players (a.k.a. all of us) categorized as either relative winners or losers.
Zero-sum games and the principle of scarcity
The generalized framing of human interactions as a series of zero-sum games has disturbing implications when you consider that at least the 70-80% of us who lean toward homo economicus or homo reciprocans behavior – and possibly even many who seem to lean toward homo communicus behavior – seem to react quite strongly to conditions of scarcity. Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion includes the principle of scarcity as one of the seven influence shortcuts that give us influence over others’ decisions, and it is not hard to find applications of this principle across many realms of human interaction.
Many of our economic and social structures seem to have been designed to influence our behavior by priming us to perceive scarcity. We are constantly nudged to see the world as a competition for access to resources and opportunities. Advertisements tell us we have limited access to a product or service that will make us special, so we need to get it before others do. Organizations are designed as pyramids in which the opportunities available to us decrease as we move upward through the hierarchy.
Scarcity is often coupled with other influence shortcuts to prime us for selfish behavior. Cialdini recently added a seventh influence shortcut to the original six: unity. When Cialdini refers to unity, he means something along the lines of group affiliation. We care deeply about who we are associated with and who we are separated from. Universities, corporations and other organizations induce us to compete for scarce unity resources by spreading data and stories implying that we have a limited opportunity to gain entry to their exclusive ranks. These organizations thrive upon the competition among consumers (students, employees, etc.) striving to gain access to the status, intellectual experiences, people networks and financial awards that accrue to those who gain acceptance to these institutions. We compete for access to the identity-bolstering brand affiliation that they offer.
Scarcity framing shapes what we think about and what we think about changes our physiology
Considering research on how we react physiologically to situations of scarcity and uncertainty, it is not difficult to see how being bombarded with cues of scarcity might be priming us for selfish behavior. Expecting that we will have to compete for access to something entails the possibility that we might lose access to that thing, and anticipated loss triggers the release of stress and reward chemicals preparing us for fight or flight. When we are primed to compete with our peers for a limited pool of rewards, we become more likely to perceive others as threatening agents competing with us for access to those rewards. The experience of scarcity (and the uncertainty that it entails) or even the anticipation of scarcity is a powerful motivational cocktail priming us to take action to protect our own interests in ways that undermine the interests of others.
Priming for scarcity can trigger self-reinforcing feedback loops of selfish behavior
When you consider that 50% of us fit into the category of homo reciprocans and can therefore tilt toward either cooperative or competitive behavior depending on what we expect to get in return, the prevalence of scarcity messaging has frightening implications. When we are constantly primed to expect that others will be competing with us for scarce resources we are more likely to take preemptive action to get what we want/need, thereby denying others access to what they want/need. When homo recipricans is primed to expect selfish behavior, s/he responds accordingly and this can lead to an ongoing chain reaction of selfish behavior, even at times when we might gain more individually and collectively through collaborative behavior.
Selfish behavior engenders more selfish behavior
For the moment, let’s not dispute the value of competition as a driver of positive outcomes for at least some people some of the time. Let’s even grant that – as suggested by liberal economics – competition may drive positive outcomes for many people much of the time. Granting that there is an important role for competition doesn’t entail accepting that competition is the only way we can or should interact with each other. There are obviously cases in which we can get better results through cooperation.
Unfortunately, once we have been primed for competition, it is not easy for us to switch over into collaboration. Once we have been primed for competition for scarce resources, our minds and bodies change in fundamental ways. Our vision narrows to support focus on short-term, narrowly-defined goals. Our bodies are filled with cortisol and adrenaline that prepare us to defend ourselves from potential threats or pounce on opportunities. We become more likely to see our peers as threats than as potential collaborators.
When our brains are primed to search for threats in the environment we become more likely to find or even unintentionally create those threats in the real world. In conditions of uncertainty, we often imagine and prepare for worst-case scenarios in which we will need to defend our own interests from the actions of others. As we put these plans into action, our preemptively selfish behavior primes our homo reciprocans peers to expect us and others to make choices based on narrowly-defined self-interest, inducing them to be more likely to pursue their own selfish interests. We can end up manifesting and spreading zero-sum game framing even in circumstances where this framing doesn’t accurately represent the rewards or range of options available to us.
When primed for scarcity, our innate instincts for empathy, connection and compassion can be overwhelmed by the flood of stress hormones that underlie our also innate instinct for self-protection. Once we have been primed for self-protection and competition, it is not easy to stop the stress response and switch into cooperative mode. When the 50% of us who are homo recipricans take preemptive selfish actions, our behavior comes together with that of homo economicus to tip the entire system toward a self-reinforcing loop of selfish behavior.
Is it also possible to tip the system toward cooperative behavior?
So how can an aspiring homo communicus overcome the scarcity framing that pervades our markets, organizations, schools and lives? It turns out that game theory – the application of which has been blamed for our trend toward selfishness – has also produced a potential solution that is surprisingly simple: the positive tit-for-tat strategy.
Positive tit-for-tat nudges homo recipricans toward collaboration while mitigating the influence of the selfish behavior of homo economicus
Game theory research indicates that over a long series of transactions, a variation on the tit-for-tat strategy leads to the most success. The positive tit-for-tat formula is quite simple:
- When you encounter someone for the first time, interact with them in a prosocial, cooperative manner.
- In subsequent interactions, reciprocate whatever behavior that person has most recently demonstrated.
The “start with positive” principle nudges homo recipricans (the 50% in the middle) toward prosocial, cooperative behavior. The “reciprocate subsequent behavior” strategy then reinforces the cooperative behavior or “punishes” the selfish behavior of your counterpart.
In an interview with Steve Levitt on People I Mostly Admire, leading game theorist Robert Axelrod describes the positive tit-for-tat strategy as follows: “Be nice, forgiving and provocable.”
According to Axelrod, game theory simulations consistently show that starting a series of transactions with collaborative action, then subsequently mirroring the behavior of one’s counterpart (tit-for-tat) leads to the best overall results. Although it doesn’t lead to the best result in every single transaction, the discipline of role modeling cooperation in your first interaction with new counterparts seems to create just enough momentum to tilt the balance of a group’s overall dynamic toward collaboration. It seems that – at least in game theory simulations – giving people the benefit of the doubt in the first encounter triggers waves of collaborative behavior, redounding to the benefit of individuals and the group as a whole.
Axelrod clarifies that the “be nice” strategy can only be continued when a counterpart reciprocates it. If someone repeatedly (either intentionally or unintentionally) acts selfishly toward you, you need to demonstrate that you are also capable of pursuing your own self-interest even when it comes at the expense of a peer, especially one who has pursued their own self-interest at your expense. The discipline of returning selfishness with selfishness might reinforce that behavior in the short run, but it might also “teach” your peer that you cannot be taken advantage of because you are capable of protecting yourself from those who threaten your interests. Enlightened self-interest does not entail blind trust that people will eventually learn to “play nice.”
The challenge is learning how NOT to subsequently fall into the “protect yourself” strategy as your default mode for future interactions with new counterparts. Game theory research shows that starting with “protect yourself” strategy as a default setting ends up being a self-defeating strategy. Even after you have encountered selfish behavior on the part of a peer, you benefit from 1) giving the benefit of the doubt to the next peer you encounter AND 2) from actively looking for opportunities to forgive the past offender. Even after things have gone off track, it is generally possible to start a new series of transactions with that individual. The great thing about human beings is that we are capable of learning from experience of both the positive and negative varieties.
Developing the discipline of consciously switching back to a default mode of cooperation is a core part of the winning strategy.
In another interview on People I Mostly Admire, Yul Kwon explained how he used the positive tit-for-tat strategy to come out on top in the reality TV competition Survivor. He was able to build a winning coalition by first treating people well, then responding in kind in subsequent interactions. Those who betrayed him found that he was able to take action to put them at a disadvantage, but they also found that if they transitioned to cooperative behavior, he was willing to “accept them back into the fold.” Kwon’s approach was self-interested, but his self-interest proved to be of the enlightened variety, and he claimed that the positive tit-for-tat approach was one of the keys to his ultimate success.
While we are role modeling cooperative behavior, we can’t ignore the fact that the 20-30% of our fellows who are likely to behave like homo economicus. They may continue to demonstrate selfish behavior in relation to us even after we show prosocial cooperative behavior toward them. This has huge implications for the overall tendency toward either cooperativeness or competitiveness of the group in aggregate. If the 20-30% who are homo economicus are allowed to return cooperation with selfishness with impunity, this can have the effect of encouraging a selfish behavior priming the scarcity instincts of the 50% who are homo recipricans and setting off a contagion of selfishness throughout the system.
At the same time, if our goal is to promote homo communicus behavior, we need to remember that people learn from experience. The fact that someone acted in a selfish manner previously, doesn’t necessarily mean they will act in a selfish manner now. After we have reciprocated or punished the selfish behavior in a peer, we should stay open to the possibility that the same peer will learn from the experience and keep an eye out for signs that they may be ready to consider more than just their own narrowly-defined selfish interest in future interactions.
Most seemingly selfish actors are probably not pre-disposed to homo economicus behavior. If 50% of us are homo recipricans, then it is possible that most of the people who take seemingly selfish action are actually just practicing preemptive selfishness. If they live in an environment with a particularly strong contagion of selfishness, they may have even given up on the likelihood that they will ever meet people they can trust to act in cooperative manner. If we don’t provide that evidence, it will be difficult for them to develop enough trust to be willing to take the risk of leading with cooperative behavior.
So how should we apply the positive tit-for-tat strategy in real life?
One fundamental problem we all face both in game theory and in real life is that when we meet someone for the first time we don’t yet know whether this person will behave as homo communicus, recipricans or economicus. As discussed above, the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect from our peers can trigger a preemptive defensive stance with attendant physiological shifts. When faced with the unknown or unfamiliar, our imaginations fill all that empty space with negative possibilities we wish to avoid. We imagine the many negative things our peers could do to hurt us or undermine our interests. Since the discipline of choosing cooperative behavior in first-time encounters – which are by definition filled with uncertainty – does not come naturally to most of us, even those of us who aspire to living in something closer to a homo communicus world probably find ourselves slipping into homo economicus behavior in our first-time encounters. This, unfortunately, has the unintended impact of cuing homo economicus behavior in our homo recipricans peers, creating a self-sustaining cycle of selfish behavior.
Positive tit-for-tat can inoculate homo recipricans against an infection of preemptive selfish behavior
Homo communicus aspirants can use a modified tit-for-tat strategy to protect against infections of scarcity framing and unproductive competition. With self-awareness and self-discipline, we can increase the likelihood that our first moves with new people role model a cooperative orientation. If it is true that 20-30% of the people we meet will behave like homo communicus and another 50% will behave like homo recipricans, our cooperative behavior will tend to reinforce the cooperative behavior of both groups and might eventually even tip the balance of the whole system toward cooperation.
Leading with cooperative behavior does, of course, expose us to some risk of loss. We have to remember that 20-30% of the people we meet will turn out to be homo economicus. Thus, even as we lead with cooperative behavior, we should make sure that we are not risking too much in our early encounters. Moreover, we must remember that there is in fact a very small subset of people who behave with genuine malevolence toward others.
I would never argue that we should make ourselves vulnerable to those who wish us harm, and doing so would not serve our interests or the interests of our homo recipricans peers. Neither we as individuals nor as a larger group would benefit from allowing our homo economicus (or rare but real malevolent) peers to take advantage of our cooperative stance. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the selfish behavior of homo economicus and there is no need for us to turn the other cheek. Like Yul Kwon, we need to be ready to respond in kind to whatever comes back from our counterparts. If our cooperation is reciprocated, we continue to cooperate. If our cooperation is met with selfishness, though, we need to demonstrate the ability and willingness to reciprocate that as well.
It can be challenging to reciprocate what seems to be selfish behavior without falling into the trap of falling into the default mode of using preemptive selfish behavior even after we move on to interactions with others, especially people we are interacting with for the first time. This is where the be open and forgiving parts come in. As discussed above, many behaviors that look selfish to us are likely to be variations of preemptive selfishness on the part of homo recipricans rather than of the default selfishness of homo economicus. If we can maintain a genuine sense of humility and curiosity about our peers even after some of them have demonstrated selfish behavior, we may find that we can lead many of our homo recipricans peers toward collaboration.
If 75-80% of us are for the most part reinforcing each other’s cooperative behavior, we have the power to create a cooperative swarm with enough momentum to overwhelm both the strategic selfish behavior of homo economicus and the preemptive selfish behavior of homo reciprocans.
By consciously employing the positive tit-for-tat strategy, we can increase the likelihood that the cooperative behavior of homo communicus will trigger a wave of cooperative behavior among homo recipricans. As the percentage of our homo recipricans counterparts who expect cooperation increases, the vulnerability of the entire group to an infection of scarcity framing decreases and the percentage of homo recipricans who start to lead with prosocial behavior increases. Increasing the repetitions of cooperative behavior in effect inoculates the group against sudden outbreaks of selfishness driven primarily by scarcity framing. Over time, as more and more of our homo recipricans colleagues come to trust that their cooperative behavior will be reciprocated, the behavior pattern of the whole group tends to swarm toward cooperative behavior. (for more on the characteristics of swarms and the power of the small world network phenomenon, see Making waves in an Inter-connected world @ http://ideapracticeblog.com/2009/05/27/the-anthropologist-the-philosopher-and-the-swarm/)
Research on behavioral tipping points shows that they often kick in when a surprisingly small percentage of a group consistently demonstrates a behavior. Tipping points are often triggered by as little as a 10-25% shift in behavior. 25% is a tantalizing number because it corresponds with the percentage of the population that sits on the edges – homo communicus and homo economicus. At any given time, the direction of the swarm may depend on the intensity of the behavior of those who live at or near the margins. It will take a concerted, sustained effort on the part of those who aspire to a more cooperative society and economy to overcome the momentum currently baked into our organizations, systems and markets. There may never be a point when we can completely avoid the tit-for-tat strategy because doing so puts the 50% in the middle at risk of an outbreak of preemptive selfishness, but with concerted effort we might be able to rebalance the system toward an overall default setting of cooperation.
In order to create a swarm toward collaborative behavior, we need to:
- Role model cooperative behavior in the early stages of our relationships.
- Subsequently, continue to role model cooperative behavior whenever it is reciprocated.
- Maintain the willingness to also reciprocate selfish behavior to protect our own interests and reduce the attractiveness of selfish behavior to homo recipricans.
- Be forgiving and generous enough to give others a second chance even after they have demonstrated selfish behavior.
- Remember not to give in to negative expectation bias (in the face of uncertainty) and reset to leading with cooperative behavior when we meet the next person.
How can we create conditions under which more people are primed early and often to expect cooperative behavior from their fellow human beings?
It is the choices that homo recipricans makes that will tip our companies and societies in one direction or the other, but by definition homo recipricans‘ behavior is contingent and sensitive to environmental cues. Unfortunately, our society and economy are currently inundated with systemic nudges toward scarcity framing and competition. Combined with our natural tendency to form negative expectations under cases of uncertainty, many of us are left in a more-or-less constant state of hyper-vigilance that primes us for preemptive selfishness.
Individually choosing to demonstrate cooperative behavior is a great place to start, but a lot of the priming in the modern world does not come from direct interaction with other people so much as with systems, processes and institutions. Systems, processes and institutions that are designed based on homo economicus assumptions are much more likely prime homo recipricans for scarcity thinking and preemptive selfish behavior.
Systemic nudges might help
There are various strains of research that suggest that it is possible to rejigger the behavioral nudges, cues and framing effects implicit in our systems, processes and institutions to prime more people to more frequently behave in a cooperative manner. For example, making organ donation a default rather than elective choice seems to reduce the friction impeding the cooperative behavior of organ donation. There are also strains of research showing that framing a choice in moral or social rather than economic terms can increase the percentage of people who make cooperative rather than selfish choices.
Assume positive intent
Some years ago, I worked with a company (a very profitable company at that) that includes the following phrase in their values statement: “Assume positive intent.” Phrases like “Assume positive intent” can be empty slogans on the wall if the words are not matched by a series of positive experiences in the workplace that confirm that the words are more than just paint on the wall. This company had made a genuine effort to make this philosophy core not only to the company’s messaging, but also it’s everyday behavior, and you could tell from the way people stepped in to help each other that many of them had taken this phrase to heart and were doing their best to bring it to life in their actions.
If even a few people take them seriously and put them into practice, phrases like “Assume positive intent” can be part of a formula for shifting an organization toward more cooperation based on enlightened self-interest by helping us overcome our natural instinct to protect ourselves in the face of what are all-too-often imagined rather than real threats.
You could extrapolate from research on nudges and cues that a well-constructed cooperative narrative, supported by systemic and institutional nudges could shift our organizations and societies toward more cooperative default settings. As this research continues, though, it is probably up to those who aspire to a more cooperative existence to consciously step up and take the risk of leading with cooperative behavior.
Can we find more cooperative ways to respond to uncertainty and perceived scarcity?
Uncertainty and perceived scarcity seem to an elicit our self-protection instincts, so if we leave our reactions to chance we are likely to react to them by taking aggressive action to preempt losses. Indeed, preemptive self-protection instinct is probably part of a survival formula that enabled our ancestors to survive long enough to leave their genes to us.
In the 21st century, we certainly continue to face a great deal of uncertainty and many people do in fact deal with real forms of scarcity. Still, even as the global population approaches 8 billion and as our world becomes increasingly inter-connected, the nature and significance of these threats seems to be shifting. In many places, we do not experience genuine scarcity so much as ritualized games of scarcity that have been designed to keep us on edge and productive, but it may be time for us to move beyond these ritualized games for the sake of our own wellness and that of the species. The same selfish behaviors that enabled our ancestors to survive in a world of one or two billion people may exacerbate conditions that could threaten us with collective extinction in a world of eight or ten billion.
Ensuring that we get enough for ourselves in conditions of perceived scarcity through actions that beggar our neighbors may no longer be a sound strategy for individual or collective survival. In aggregate, selfish behavior seems to be pushing us toward a series of tipping points for the societies and ecosystems that support us. We may be approaching a point where if we don’t hang together, we will hang separately (en masse). Under conditions of uncertainty and perceived scarcity, when we feel the urge to strike first to make sure we get what we feel like we need right now, we may need to learn to take a deep breath and consider whether we can get more bang for our buck by leading with cooperation. Contributing to a swarm toward cooperation just might turn out to be the best way to serve our own interests as well as the interests of our peers and planet.
Sources and Resources:
- Homo economicus, recipricans and communicus (Ecological Economics, Principles and Applications by Herman E Daly and Josh Farley)
- Law of perceived scarcity (Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Cialdini interview on Freakonomics Radio, episode 463)
- How uncertainty triggers stress response – (Why can Uncertainty Cause Stress? by Dr. Liji Thomas) https://www.news-medical.net/health/Why-can-Uncertainty-Cause-Stress.aspx and – (Anticipation of Uncertain Threat Modulates Subsequent Affective Responses and Covariation Bias by Zhiling Qiao, Haiyang Geng, Yi Wang, and Xuebing Li) https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02547/full
- Persistence of negative framing once it has been established even after conditions have improved – Allison Ledgerwood TEDx talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XFLTDQ4JMk)
- The physiology of pursuit of rewards, avoidance of discomfort and addiction – Sapolsky, lectures #14 on limbic system and Anna Lemke’s work on the hedonic seesaw
- Moral versus economic standards for decision-making – Valerio Capraro & Andrea Vanzo
- Swarm / network theory and tipping points as basis for creating waves of homo communicus behavior (particularly Duncan Watts, Nexus and Sapolsky)
- Tendency to be optimistic about one’s own prospects while being pessimistic about the prospects of others (To the Best of our Knowledge “The Science of looking on the Bright Side” Tali Sharot)
- Positive tit-for-tat – Robert Axelrod – Be kind, provocable and forgiving (PIMA 47) and Yul Kwon (PIMA 13 and 14)
- Behavioral nudges as cue for either cooperative or selfish behavior (PIMA 58 Richard Thaler and FR 474)
- Moral framing of economic decisions – http://journal.sjdm.org/19/190107/jdm190107.html
For an exploration of how treating employees as costs (“means to an end” rather than “ends unto themselves”) has become a fundamental tenet of business education, see:
For research on the impact of small positive interactions with people with whom you have weak ties on your own well-being and the well-being of others, listen to this interview with Gillian Sandstorm on Hidden Brain:
For research on the power of “conversational receptiveness” (a variation on maintaining curiosity or at least the appearance of curiosity in a partner’s perspective during conflict), listen to this interview with Julia Manson on Hidden Brain:
© Dana Cogan, 2022, all rights reserved.