/ Ideas

Cooperation, or how to have a good time together

Cooperation, or how to have a good time together

A common assumption used to be that sharing a common goal is sufficient for an interaction to be categorized as cooperation (1). Yet some have recently argued in favour of a clearer distinction between “collective action” and “cooperation" (2). The former implies that agents share a common goal, while the latter implies that agents share a common goal and share a coordinated execution intention (which is equivalent to saying that they depend on each other to achieve their common goal) (3). What distinguishes cooperative from non-cooperative collective action are thus the shared/non-shared intentions regarding the execution of a common goal, (4) as illustrated in Table 1.


Table 1. Cooperation as a particular form of collective action (Leist, 2011)



Behavioral economics has shown that people often choose to cooperate even when they can better serve their interests by acting selfishly. The motivation for cooperation thus seems to depend on context, and is not always strictly rational and egotistical. Some authors have delineated outcome-dependent drivers such as self-interest (“I-goals”) and communal interest (“we-goals”) (5); others also speak of intrinsic altruism and coercive social norms (6). Although interesting, theories on the drivers of human cooperation have for a long time remained embroiled in a nature-versus-nurture debate (7). Yet one thing is certain: whether it is intrinsic altruism or socially acquired attitudes (trust, openness, a sense of belonging, and so on), some kind of individual property seems necessary for cooperation to happen at a larger collective level (8).


Whatever the origins of cooperation are, there are no doubts that it can lead to positive consequences. The philosopher Joseph Heath convincingly makes the case that cooperation exists to create mutual benefits (9), and that the primary purpose of social institutions is to secure cooperation, arguing that “if individuals simply seek to satisfy their own preferences in a narrowly instrumental fashion, they will find themselves embroiled in collective action problems: interactions with an outcome that is worse for everyone involved than some other possible outcome. Thus they have a reason to accept some form of constraint over their conduct, in order to achieve this superior, but out-of-equilibrium outcome" (10). The author contends that there are five types of mechanisms which allow such beneficial outcomes to be realized. These are: (a) economies of scale; (b) gains from trade; (c) risk pooling; (d) self-binding; and (e) information transmission (11).


Economies of scale arise from the fact that individual labor does not simply “add up” to an organizational activity; some tasks are such that adding another agent generates a disproportionate increase in output. If one individual is able to produce an output of x per unit of labor, an economy of scale is present when adding a comparable unit of labor from another individual increases output by more than x.


Gains from trade arise from situations where individuals may be able to achieve benefits by rearranging the distribution of goods, or tasks, among themselves. An appropriate redistribution is thus achieved through a process of exchange. This is exactly what allows a division of labor to occur. Particularly skilled individuals may agree to carry out their skilled tasks “for everyone,” while instituting a structure of reciprocity such that their other needs are taken care of by others (12).


Risk pooling is yet another strictly cooperative process which enables risk-averse managers to deal with uncertainty regarding the possibility of outcomes which they would be unable to deal with on an individual basis. Pooling resources to insure each individual thus increases everyone’s utility.


Self-binding is a mechanism allowing an individual to enlist others to help maintain his self-control. The mechanism allows individuals to deal with their irrational tendencies. An individual who authorizes others to punish him can guard himself against his own preference reversals.


Finally, information transmission allows individuals to economize on learning costs. Learning can sometimes be achieved without any form of cooperation, through observation and imitation, for example. However, most knowledge is transmitted through a process of interactive learning which requires cooperation (13). Hence most of what we know is not a result of individual experience, but is acquired through our communication and cooperation with other individuals (14).


In sum, neither competition nor cooperation refers to a clear-cut causal mechanism; these concepts rather refer to categories of interactions, which may involve different causes, processes and outcomes (15). What competition and cooperation are taken to be varies considerably depending on the social phenomena being explained (16), as well as the values of those that interpret them. While differences still remain regarding the exact delimitation of these fundamental categories, their prolific use in both social science and popular discourse points to their usefulness in understanding social phenomena. However, in order for us to shape interactions in ways that are beneficial to organizations and to society, it is paramount that we share a clear and coherent view of what exactly it is that we are talking about. Hopefully this essay provides some useful material in that direction.




[1] Tuomela (1993).

[2] This distinction was made by Leist (2011).

[3] On a similar note, social psychologist Morton Deutsch (2006) distinguishes competition and cooperation along two lines: (1) the degree of interdependence between the actors, and (2) the type of action taken by the people involved.

[4] Several authors have examined what the execution of a common goal implies. According to Gilbert (1992), if one individual asks “shall we go for a walk?” and the other answers “yes,” then each individual can be considered as sharing a common walking-plan, as well as an obligation to fulfill his part of that plan. However, Bratman (1993) argues that “intentions are subject to a demand for stability. One reason for this is that the reconsideration of an intention already formed can itself have significant costs; a second is that an agent who too easily reconsiders her prior intentions will be a less reliable partner in social coordination.” (Bratman, 1993: 110) Rational pressure would thus be sufficient to maintain stability, and reciprocal obligation is not strictly necessary for there to be a shared intention.

[5] Tuomela (2005).

[6] Leist (2011).

[7] See, for example, Pienkowski (2009), who provides an overview of existing conjectures regarding evolutionary, psychological and institutional determinants of selfishness and altruism; or Gintis (2011), who argues that “human characteristics are the product of gene–culture coevolution” which is “responsible for human other-regarding preferences, a taste for fairness, the capacity to empathize and salience of morality and character virtues.” (Gintis, 2011: 878) Others such as Declerck, Boone and Emonds (2013) delineate the factors explaining cooperation according to two broad categories: those of external structural incentives, and those of socially conditioned beliefs.

[8] A very good example on such “cooperative values” comes from the economist Marcel Fafchamps, who distinguishes between two categories of trust. The first is personalized trust, which arises from “repeated interpersonal interaction,” while the second is generalized trust, which arises from “general knowledge about the population of agents, the incentives they face, and the upbringing they have received [...] The difference between the two is that, for each pair of newly matched agents, the former takes time and effort to establish while the latter is instantaneous” (Fafchamps, 2006: 1183). Many developing countries which are said to be stuck in a “social trap” are characterized by high levels of personalized trust (strong family and tribal ties) and low generalized trust (whoever is not part of the “friends and family” circle is immediately treated with suspicion).

[9] On a similar note, Leist (2011) argues that most forms of cooperation are outcome-oriented.

[10] Heath (2006: 313).

[11] In business terms, one could potentially interpret these mechanisms as various ways to achieve “synergy.”

[12] These two mechanisms are seen as the primary drivers of cooperation for transaction cost economists such as Hennart (1991), who argues that “cooperation between individuals can be productive for two reasons. First, some tasks require more capabilities than can be provided by a single individual and consequently can only be achieved by pooling the efforts of two or more people. Individuals also have differing abilities, and cooperation through trade allows individuals to exploit those differences by making it possible for each to specialize in tasks for which he/she has a comparative advantage.” (Hennart, 1991: 158).

[13] This precept lies at the heart of the knowledge-based theory of the firm. According to Kogut and Zander (1993), not only do firms possess specific capabilities to foster cooperation between individual agents, but this cooperation is precisely what makes them able to create and transfer knowledge efficiently, and thus develop firm-specific advantages (Kogut and Zander, 1993: 631). The knowledge-based theory of the firm has given rise to a literature that focuses exclusively on a specific form of cooperation, namely knowledge sharing (e.g. Tagliaventi et al, 2010).

[14] This paragraph somewhat paraphrases Heath (2006: 319-327).

[15] Mayntz (2004) argues that “part of the semantic noise [regarding the use of the term ‘mechanism’] follows from the ambiguity of many of our basic social science concepts, concepts that can refer both to a process and to a (static) outcome. ‘Cooperation’ and ‘competition’ are but two of many examples. Of course, it is entirely legitimate to label a mechanism that has been spelled out in detail by a noun that refers to a process, an outcome, or a factor. But to use a terminological label [e.g. ‘cooperation’ or ‘competition’] merely to allude to a process that remains unspecified has no more explanatory value than the simple statement of a correlation.” (Mayntz, 2004: 239)

[16] I here follow one of Kincaid’s (2012: 5) arguments regarding concepts in scientific theory.



BRATMAN, Michael E. (1993). “Shared Intention”, Ethics, Vol. 104, No. 1, pp. 97-113.

DECLERCK, Carolyn H., Christophe BOONE and Griet EMONDS (2013). “When do people cooperate? The neuroeconomics of prosocial decision making”, Brain and Cognition, Vol. 81, Issue 1, pp. 95-117.

FAFCHAMPS, Marcel (2003). “Social Capital and Development”, Economic Series Working Papers, No. 214, University of Oxford,

GINTIS, Herbert (2011). “Gene-culture coevolution and the nature of human sociality”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 366, no. 1566, pp. 878-888.

HEATH, Joseph (2006). “The Benefits of Cooperation”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 34, No 4, pp. 313-351.

HENNART, Jean-François (1991). “Control in Multinational Firms: the Role of Price and Hierarchy”, Management International Review, Vol. 31, Special issue: Frontiers of International Business Research, pp. 71-96.

KINCAID, Harold (2012) (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science. Oxford University Press.

KOGUT, Bruce and Udo ZANDER (1993). “Knowledge of the Firm and the Evolutionary Theory of the Multinational Corporation”, Journal of International Business Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 625-645.

LEIST, Anton (2011). “Potentials of Cooperation”, Analyse & Kritik, Vol. 33, Issue 1, pp. 7-33.

MAYNTZ, Renate (2004). “Mechanisms in the Analysis of Social Macro-Phenomena”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 237-259.

PIENKOWSKI, Dariusz (2009). “Selfishness, cooperation, the evolutionary point of view and its implications for economics”, Ecological Economics, Vol. 69, No. 2, pp. 335-344.

TAGLIAVENTI, Maria Rita, Fabiola BERTOLOTTI, Diego Maria MACRI (2010). “A perspective on practice in interunit knowledge sharing”, European Management Journal, Vol. 28, No. 5, pp. 331-345.

TUOMELA (1993). “What is Cooperation?” Erkenntnis, Vol. 38, Issue 1, pp. 87-101.

TUOMELA (2005). “Two basic kinds of cooperation”, in: Vanderveken, D. (ed.) Logic, Thought and Action. Springer. Chapter 4, pp. 79-107.


Photos :

Triptych, by Dave W. [Source].


comments powered by Disqus