The economics of cooperative behavior


Humans and other animals share a heritage of economic tendencies - including cooperation, repayment of favours and resentment at being short-changed. By Frans B. M. de Waal, Scientific American, April 2005 issue

Animal Behavior Economics

An emerging new field known as Animal Behaviour economics, proposes that "basic human economic tendencies and preoccupations such as reciprocity, the division of rewards, and co-operation are not limited to our species".

For example, certain monkeys and chimpanzees share food and engage in co-operative hunting in the same way as humans.

These kinds of behaviour are known as "Reciprocity Mechanisms".

There are a number of different types however they all share one thing in common - the benefits always find their way back to the original giver.

This new economics is gaining considerable interest with two of its founders recently sharing a Nobel Prize for their work.

The Problem of Freeloaders in Teams

The article highlights a problem that all communities and teams share - "freeloaders" - members who take much more than they give.

The research suggests that in animal communities freeloaders are seldom pro-actively punished but rather they are simply abandoned and replaced with those offering more benefits.

This resonates for me in bioteaming and how we should find "market mechanisms" to replace team freeloaders as a much more realistic alternative to trying to "change manage" them into more responsible team players.

Birds do it, Chimps do it...

The article also references an amazing web-link to a 3 minute black and white (silent) movie from the 1930s showing how two juvenile chimpanzees co-operate together to reach a food source which neither could reach individually.

This is a great film to show at the start of a team project as it demonstrates:

  1. highly coordinated action between partners

  2. full understanding of the needs of the other partners (note the glancing and coordination)

  3. recruitment behavior, such as motivation of a "lazy" partner so that the task can be completed"

The movie goes a long way towards dispelling any misconception that primates find cooperation difficult

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