Are we intuitively cooperative in economic matters?

Hungry cardboard sign by Benjimin & Deborah SF

I’ve previously argued that we have an innate impulse to fairness and cooperation, and an equally innate emotional reaction against unfairness. New research suggests that our sense of fairness and cooperation might be intuitive, although it might not be innate.

Researchers from Harvard University and Yale University tested subjects in ten different economic cooperation games. (These are similar to the “Commons Poker” game I created.) Economic cooperation games aren’t new, and have been studied for decades.

The new twist here is that researchers instructed subjects to either speed up their game decisions and rely on intuition, or to slow down their game decisions and reflect on their choices. Consistent results showed that more intuitive decision making lead to more cooperation.

An article from Stanford Graduate School of Business summarizes this nicely:

“Indeed, across a range of experimental designs, and with students in the physical laboratory as well as with an international online sample, faster decisions were associated with more prosociality. Consistent with this, when participants were subjected to time-pressure conditions, they contributed significantly more money on average than subjects who were instructed to reflect and delay their decision. The situation was the same even when the monetary stakes were increased tenfold.”

I relate to this through my many travels through downtown San Francisco. When I see someone on the sidewalk or in a BART station asking for money, my first reaction is to give–but then reflection takes over in the time it takes to consider what’s in my wallet that I could afford to give.

In writing this blog I’ve learned that direct giving can be a highly effective way to improve the conditions of those in poverty. I want to do more on a personal level. I need to trust my instincts and intuition more. I could also have a $1 or $5 bill handy to give, so that I can think less and give more.

The Stanford article concludes by stating that intuition is not necessarily genetic or biological. It can be created or reinforced through cultural norms and interactions. (This is starting to sound like a nature-versus-nurture debate.)

Do you find yourself second-guessing an impulse for fairness or cooperation?

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