Anger’s role in cooperation |

Anger’s role in cooperation

Alan Braunholtz

“This is not road rage! It’s justified self-righteous anger.” That’s one of my favorite bumper stickers. Perhaps it also expresses one instinct that holds societies together. Driving like a selfish jerk, assuming a right to cut ahead of everyone else since of course your time is more important, is one thing. The desire to punish these cheats of the road is another. Recent research suggests it’s a cornerstone of cooperative society, if not safe driving.Humans are a strangely cooperative lot. Animals can show the gift of kindness, but almost only to genetic relatives. This is explained by the selfish gene theory in which shared DNA programs its biological hosts to help similar strands of DNA in brothers and sisters out.We’re different. We continually show we’ll help out total strangers with little if any chance for them to pay us back. Few in the U.S. expect anyone in Indonesia to help us out anytime soon. But we, and the whole world, gave millions after the tsunami.There are a lot of experiments with real people playing games with real money that show strong reciprocal behavior. People will cooperate even when the experiment makes it clear there is nothing to gain. They will also punish perceived cheaters at significant costs to themselves; about half of us want to play fair regardless, apparently.Why? Some argue this is an evolutionary maladaptation left over from older times when we lived in small groups that depended on cooperation to survive. A “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type of reciprocal altruism. If this is true, anonymous modern society should be weeding this behavior out as we become a disconnected sprawl of selfish bastards.Happily, there are plenty of arguments against this. Similar experiments show we distinguish between repeated games with the same players and one-off encounters. Repeated games double the level of cooperation but even one-offs show a strong reciprocity. The maladaptation theory suggests we should treat both the same, but we don’t. We know the difference and still choose to cooperate.Computer models suggest why. Individually cheats prosper. But when groups compete, the cooperative groups win. Even individuals prone to cheating can see this and go along for their own gain, at least until the group reaches a size of about 10, then it pays to cheat again. Groups can counteract this by actively punishing cheats, and this works up to a size of 50. Then the anonymity of size lets the cheaters profit again.This is where hardline, self-righteous anger comes into its own. If a group punishes not only the cheaters but also those who turn a blind eye, then cooperation occurs in groups of several hundred and more. The management cliche “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” takes on a whole new relevance here.Other reasons to behave nicely include education. Societies spend a lot of time teaching their children a moral code that almost always encourages cooperative actions. Every religion has a version of the Golden Rule – treat others how you’d like to be treated. I’ve never quite worked out how absolute “me-first” versions of capitalism attached themselves to some of these religions, but they did.Being generous is great for one’s standing in society. I’m willing to bet Bill Gates is known in the developing world because of the generosity of his foundation as much as being the world’s richest person.Punishing cheats also adds to your reputation, and reputations mean a lot in games in which the players choose to cooperate and punish. Then you get into biochemical rewards in the brain. Being generous stimulates areas of the brain associated with rewards. A similar rush kicks in when we punish cheats. There is a real pleasure in giving and getting even. Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado

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