Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thoughts on the human instinct to cooperate

I now work for a firm that places an emphasis on cooperation, helping others to learn and continuing education. My new employer emphasizes these three areas of work in ways that I have never seen done in other firms that I have worked for. The posture of my new employer has elicited in me great anticipation of opportunities to learn, train, help and teach.

Early interactions with my new classmates and soon to be workmates have also given me perspective on their experience at other companies. For example, one co-worker had previously worked for a company that put their new employees in the shark tank with very little opportunity for training and professional development. Overtime was not paid, either in cash or comp time. There were few incentives for employees to cooperate and competition was encouraged. With a CEO and corporate board single-mindedly focused on maintenance of stock price rather than employees, the company in question has experienced declining fortunes relative to my new employer.

It is interesting to see the contrasts between companies that cooperate and generate goodwill and those companies who seem to think that competition is the solution to all problems of inefficiency.

For example, Vivek Wadwha has noted an interesting contrast in culture between Google and Facebook. Where Facebook inserts more ads, more sponsored posts and greater privacy intrusions, Facebook elicits the wrath of their users. Google on the other hand, is generally perceived as more benign than Facebook, primarily because Google has worked hard to generate goodwill with their community of users and partners.

The contrast is generally one of selfishness vs cooperation. Over the years studies have been done to show that selfishness contributes to better chances for survival than cooperation. Most of that work is premised on the ideas discerned from the work of Charles Darwin. However, I take those studies with a grain of salt because many of those studies ignore the many examples of cooperation that Darwin found and the methodologies imposed isolation between the subjects of the experiments.

Studies of cooperation vs competition usually employ some variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a deceivingly simple experiment in game theory. Two prisoners have been arrested and charged for a crime. If one rats out on the other, he goes free and the other guy goes to jail, and vice versa. If both cooperate, they do less time than if they both betray each other. But in most studies, the prisoners are not allowed to talk with each other.

A recent study found that the dynamic changes entirely when both prisoners are allowed to talk to each other. What came out of the study is that selfish behavior is great for short term survival of individuals, but cooperation is much better for long term survival of a species. This correlation is evident in humans and in the animal kingdom.

Google thinks long term, they think big, and they're not afraid to share what they've learned with others with contributions to open source software. Google contributes to open standards, they do not initiate patent fights, and they encourage people to code with their "Summer of Code" events, among many other examples of goodwill.

There isn't much goodwill on the part of Facebook that can be cited. Wadwha sees this contrast as evidence that eventually, Facebook will become a technological backwater, like AOL, Myspace and Microsoft. Google will outlast many of their competitors not just because of their technological proficiencies, and they recognize that skill and experience alone aren't enough. It is Google's goodwill that can provide a lasting foundation for success.

Selfish action assumes a scarcity of resources. Cooperation and goodwill assume abundance and/or the ability to create more resources through cooperation. While it is impossible to hurt someone else without hurting yourself, the converse is also true. It is impossible to help someone else without helping yourself.
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