There’s every possibility that I’ve missed something utterly obvious, but I’ve been reading up on the fickle nature of cooperation for my thesis, and I’ve found what appears to be a gaping hole in the literature.
There are countless studies that explore the challenges of encouraging cooperation – primarily via the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a tool. There are also plenty of studies that look at cooperation from a social perspective, at the motivations that individual agents employ and the psychological benefits they receive from group activity.
But I’m yet to find a paper that clearly defines what cooperation really is and, more importantly, it’s benefits.
It seems the existing studies skip the question: why cooperate?, and barrel forth into questions about the difficulty of encouraging cooperation, apparently assuming that cooperation is a universally desirable outcome. Maybe it is, but I want to know precisely what are the benefits of cooperation that makes it so attractive.
So far I’ve come up with six reasons why cooperation is deemed desirable:
1) Force multiplication
Cooperation allows two or more individuals to combine forces to perform a task that would be impossible by one individual alone. A simple example would be lifting a heavy weight (we’ve all asked friends and family to pop around to shift that couch).
In fact, the task could be defined as anything that is beyond the capacities of an individual, whether that capacity is physical (strength), intellectual or spatiotemporal (manipulating two distant objects simultaneously). This doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement to efficiency, just that a previously impossible task is rendered possible.
2) Division of labour
Cooperation enables a large task to be broken up into smaller sub-tasks which are easier to perform than the whole task taken as one. This not only makes one large complex task into smaller simple tasks, but it allows a large serial task to be parallelised, thus improving efficiency.
Cooperation allows individuals to devote a greater proportion of their finite resources towards improving performance at a particular task. Combined with division of labour this not only improves efficiency but can also enable tasks that were previously impossible without specialisation.
Specialisation also allows individuals to capitalise on their intrinsic strengths and mitigate their intrinsic weaknesses by cooperating with a sympathetic individual.
Division of labour and specialisation in turn allow greater coordination through devoting finite resources specifically towards directing effort in a way that is more efficient than if it is undertaken on an ad hoc basis. The benefit of coordination would only emerge if the energy expended coordinating is more than made up for by increased efficiency or productivity in the task at hand (a problem for corporations riddled with middle managers today…).
Coordination can also prevent conflicts of interest and potentially costly clashes (see the donkeys in the pic).
Cooperation also allows one individual to ‘trade’ a surplus for a surplus produced by another individual. This trade can be literal, such as trading goods, or it can be figurative, such as trading labour.
6) Risk mitigation
Cooperation enables a task to be unshackled from being dependent on any one individual, such that if that individual is in some way prevented from performing that task, the entire endeavour doesn’t collapse around their ears.
I’m sure there must be more benefits to cooperation. I reckon economics must have studied cooperation extensively, but I’m not as familiar with economic texts, so don’t really know where to dig to find the answers. Most of my research has been in evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology, game theory and ethics, and it seems the benefits of cooperation are largely taken for granted in these fields.
If you think I’ve missed anything, or you have some tips on where I can read up on research on cooperation, please do let me know.