Unsocial Sociability: Why People Cooperate and Defect

Human beings are tough to predict because our social dynamics are vastly different from other animals. Some animals, like wolves, must function in packs; a so-called “lone wolf” would in most circumstances perish. Others, like tigers, are solitary, so that they do not need to compete with other members of their species for resources; a pack of tigers would be limited by a lack of sufficient resources in the environment. Unlike other animals, humans can switch from social to solitary and back at will. In the “Fourth Thesis” from his Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, Immanuel Kant remarks on:

the unsocial sociability of men (i.e. their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up the society). Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man… But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish. Thus he expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, on his own part, is inclined to oppose others. This opposition it is which awakens all his powers, brings him to conquer his inclination to laziness and, propelled by vainglory, lust for power, and avarice, to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw.

Simply put, Kant is saying that human beings need each other to survive but have an incentive to betray each other for their own self-advancement. This tension is what he calls “unsocial sociability.”

Two Face from Batman
I think Two Face from Batman is an apt representation of our unsocial sociability.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari believes that neither bigger brains nor tools got us to the top of the food chain; instead the crucial factor was our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers at a scale beyond small teams / packs / kin-groups. Furthermore, our ability to tell stories that minimized the threat of internal competition led to stronger cooperation; “victory almost inevitably goes to those who cooperate better,” says Harari.

If that’s the case and cooperation creates more widespread benefits to society, how can we encourage it? In many cases, there’s an incentive to break off from cooperation. Take for example, the cartel idea in economics. A cartel is a group of businesses or organizations that collude to manipulate prices and limit competition. However, they are unstable according to game theory; each member has an incentive to defect from the group to create short-term profits. David Rand of Yale says that emphasizing future consequences for present anti-cooperative behavior tends to work; people often need a self-interested motivation in the long run to be cooperative:

If you think about the puzzle of cooperation being “why should I incur a personal cost of time or money or effort in order to do something that’s going to benefit other people and not me?” the general answer is that if you can create future consequences for present behavior, that can create an incentive to cooperate. Cooperation requires me to incur some costs now, but if I’m cooperating with someone who I’ll interact with again, it’s worth it for me to pay the cost of cooperating now in order to get the benefit of them cooperating with me in the future, as long as there’s a large enough likelihood that we’ll interact again.

We need to create long-term incentives to cooperate that align with individual self-interest.

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