Strategies for Producing Cooperation

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline the variables that increase and decrease competition.
  2. Summarize the principles of negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

When we are faced with situations in which conflict is occurring or has the potential to develop, it will be useful if we are aware of the techniques that will help us best deal with it. We may want to help two roommates realize that they will be better off taking the cooperative choice—by contributing to the household chores—and we may desire to try to convince people to take public transportation rather than their own car because doing so is better for the environment and in the end better for everyone. The problem, of course, is that although the parties involved may well realize the potential costs of continuing to behave selfishly or competitively, the social situation nevertheless provides a strong motivation to continue to take the selfish choice.

It is important to attempt to determine appropriate ways to encourage more responsible use of social resources because individualistic consumption of these supplies will make them disappear faster and may have overall negative effects on human beings (Oskamp & Schultz, 2006).

It should be kept in mind that although social dilemmas are arranged to make competition a likely outcome, they do not always end in collective disaster. Historical evidence shows, for example, that most of the commons grounds in England and other countries were, in fact, managed very well by local communities and were usually not overgrazed. Many British commons exist to this day. And even the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which inspired so much research into social dilemmas, had a peaceful end. In addition, findings from experimental social dilemma research involving repeated interactions between strangers suggest that the vast majority of interactions result in mutual cooperation (De Cremer & Van Vugt, 1999).

Although the solutions are not simple, by examining the many studies that have focused on cooperation and conflict in the real world and in the lab, we can draw some conclusions about the specific characteristics that determine when and whether people cooperate or compete. These factors include the type of task, such as its rules and regulations; our perceptions about the task; the norms that are operating in the current situation; and the type and amount of communication among the parties. Furthermore, we can use approaches such as negotiation, arbitration, and mediation to help parties that are in competition come to agreement.

Task Characteristics and Perceptions

One factor that determines whether individuals cooperate or compete is the nature of the situation itself. The characteristics of some social dilemmas lead them to produce a lot of competitive responses, whereas others are arranged to elicit more cooperation. Thus one way to reduce conflict, when the approach is possible, is to change the rules of the task to reinforce more cooperation (Samuelson, Messick, Rutte, & Wilke, 1984). A class in which the instructor has decided ahead of time that only 10% of the students can get an A will be likely to produce a competitive orientation among the students. On the other hand, if the instructor says that he or she would be quite happy to assign each student an A (assuming each individual deserves one!), a more cooperative orientation is likely to ensue. In general, cooperation will increase when it is more rewarded, and competition will increase when it is rewarded (Komorita & Parks, 1994).

If societies really desire to maintain the public goods for their citizens, they will work to maintain them through incentives—for instance, by creating taxes requiring each person to contribute his or her fair share to support them. A city may add a carpool lane to the roadways, making it more desirable to commute with others and thereby help keep the highways unclogged. Similarly, in terms of harvesting dilemmas, rules can be implemented that regulate the amount of the public good that can be taken by each individual member of the society. In a water crisis, rationing can be implemented in which individuals are allowed to use only a certain amount of water each month, thereby protecting the supply for all, or fishing limits can be imposed to maintain populations. People form governments in part to make sure that all individuals in the community contribute to public goods and obey the rules of cooperation. Leaders may also be elected by the group to help convince the members of the society that it is important just to follow the rules, thereby increasing cooperation (Tyler & Lind, 1992).


Another approach to increase the optimal use of resources is to privatize them—that is, to divide up the public good into smaller pieces so that each individual is responsible for a small share rather than trusting the good to the group as a whole. In a study by Messick and McClelland (1983) using a resource game, individuals who were given their own private pool of resources to manage maintained them for an average of 31 trials of the game before they ran out. But individuals who were managing pools in groups maintained their pools for only about 10 trials and therefore gained much lower outcomes. In other experimental games, the outcomes are arranged such that the participants are either working for themselves or working for the joint outcomes of the group (Deutsch, 1949). These studies have found that when individuals have control over their own outcomes rather than sharing the resources with others, they tend to use them more efficiently. In general, smaller groups are more cooperative than larger ones and also make better use of the resources that they have available to them (Gockel, Kerr, Seok, & Harris, 2008; Kerr & Bruun, 1983).

One explanation for the difficulties of larger groups is that as the number of group members increases, each person’s behavior becomes less identifiable, which is likely to increase free riding. When people are allowed to monitor their water or energy use, they will use less of the public good (Siero, Bakker, Dekker, & van den Burg, 1996). Furthermore, people feel that they can make less of a difference in the outcome of larger (versus smaller) groups, and so they are less likely to work toward the common group goals, even if their input is actually not less important or less likely to have an influence (Kerr, 1989). Larger groups also lead people to feel more deindividuated, which may prevent them from conforming to group norms of cooperation. And in large groups, there is likely to be more difficulty coordinating the efforts of the individuals, and this may reduce cooperation. In a study by Kelley, Condry, Dahlke, and Hill (1965) in which participants had to coordinate their efforts in a type of crisis situation in which only one person could “escape” from a situation at a time, larger groups had more difficulty coordinating their activities and tended to perform more poorly. Again, the moral is straightforward: if possible, work in smaller rather than larger groups.

Decisions about whether to cooperate or compete are also influenced by expectations about the likely behavior of others. One factor that tends to produce conflict is that, overall, individuals expect others to take competitive, rather than cooperative, orientations (Sattler & Kerr, 1991), and once they see the behavior of others, they are likely to interpret that behavior as being competitive, even if it is not. In a study by Maki, Thorngate, and McClintock (1979), individuals viewed the decisions that had supposedly been made by other people who had participated in a prisoner’s dilemma task. Their task was to predict the choice that the partner had supposedly made from the payoff matrix. However, the choices had actually been selected, on the basis of a computer program, to take either competitive or cooperative orientations. Overall, across all the decisions, the participants were more accurate at making their predictions for partners who made competitive choices than for those who made cooperative choices, indicating that they expected the partners to be competitive and as a result tended to interpret their behaviors as being competitive.

The tendency to think that others will act in a competitive manner is more likely to cause problems when we are not sure what others are going to do. When we have a good idea of what the others in the situation are doing, we will likely match our responses to those of others. So when we see that others are cooperating, we are likely to cooperate as well. In other cases, for instance, when the group is very large, it is more difficult to be aware of or keep track of the behavior of others, and because there is less certainty about the behavior of others, taking the defensive (competitive) choice is more likely.

Another determinant of cooperation or competition is the prior norms of the individuals in the group (Pruitt, 1998). If the norm in the situation favors cooperation, then cooperation is likely to ensue, but if the norm favors competition, then competition will probably result. The group or society may attempt to create or uphold social norms through appeals to appropriate social values. Sattler and Kerr (1991) found that getting messages from others stressing the importance of cooperation increased cooperative behavior, particularly for individuals who were already motivated to be cooperative and when the partner actually played cooperatively. Group members may sometimes ostracize others who do not follow appropriate norms of group cooperation (Ouwerkerk, Kerr, Gallucci, & Van Lange, 2005). And situations in which the parties in interaction are similar, friendly, or have a positive group identity have also been found to be more likely to cooperate (Brewer & Kramer, 1986; Karau & Williams, 1993). Thus we should try to encourage groups to work together to create positive feelings in order to increase cooperation.

The Important Role of Communication

When communication between the parties involved in a conflict is nonexistent, or when it is hostile or negative in tone, disagreements frequently result in escalation of negative feelings and lead to conflict. In other cases, when communication is more open and positive, the parties in potential conflict are more likely to be able to deal with each other effectively, with a result that produces compromise and cooperation (Balliet, 2010).

Communication has a number of benefits, each of which improves the likelihood of cooperation. For one, communication allows individuals to tell others how they are planning to behave and what they are currently contributing to the group effort, which helps the group learn about the motives and behaviors of the others and helps the group develop norms for cooperation. Communication has a positive effect because it increases the expectation that the others will act cooperatively and also reduces the potential of being a “sucker” to the free riding of others. Thus communication allows the parties to develop a sense of trust (Messick & Brewer, 1983).

Once cooperative norms are in place, they can improve the possibilities for long-term cooperation because they produce a public commitment on the part of the parties to cooperate as well as an internalized obligation to honor those commitments (Kerr, Garst, Lewandowski, & Harris, 1997). In fact, Norbert Kerr and his colleagues (Kerr, Ganst, Lewandowski, & Harris, 1997; Kerr & Kaufman-Gilliland, 1994) have found that group discussion commits group members to act cooperatively to such an extent that it is not always necessary to monitor their behavior; once the group members have shared their intentions to cooperate, they will continue to do so because of a private, internalized commitment to it.

Communication can also allow the people working together to plan what they should do and therefore can help them better coordinate their efforts. For instance, in a resource dilemma game, discussion allows the group to monitor their withdrawals from the public good so that the pool is not depleted (Liebrand, 1984). And if only a certain number of individuals need to contribute in a contributions dilemma in order for the public good to be maintained, communication may allow the group members to set up a system that ensures that this many, but not more, contribute in any given session.

Finally, communication may also help people realize the advantages, over the long term, of cooperating. If, as a result of communication, the individuals learn that the others are actually behaving cooperatively (something that might not have been apparent given prior misperceptions that make us overestimate the extent to which others are competing), this might increase the motivation to cooperate oneself. Alternatively, learning that others are behaving competitively and thus threatening the resources may help make it clear to all the parties that increased cooperation is essential (Jorgenson & Papciak, 1981).

Perhaps the most important benefit of communication is the potential of learning that the goals of the parties involved in the conflict are not always incompatible (Thompson & Hrebec, 1996; Thompson, 1991). A major barrier to increasing cooperation is that individuals expect both that situations are arranged such that they are fixed-sum and that others will act competitively to attempt to gain a greater share of the outcomes. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily true, however, and thus one potential benefit of communication is that the parties come to see the situation more accurately.

One example of a situation in which communication was successful is the meeting held at Camp David, Maryland, in 1978 between the delegates of Egypt and Israel. Both sides sat down together with then–U.S. President Carter to attempt to reach an accord over the fate of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied for many years. Initially, neither side would budge, and attempts to divide the land in half were opposed by both sides. It appeared that there was a fixed-sum situation in which land was the important factor, and neither wanted to give it up. Over the course of discussion, communication prevailed. It became clear that what Egypt really wanted out of the deal was sovereignty over lands that were perceived as historically part of Egypt. On the other hand, what Israel valued the most was security. The outcome of the discussion was that Israel eventually agreed to return the land to Egypt in exchange for a demilitarized zone and the establishment of new Israeli air bases. Despite the initial perceptions, the situation turned out to be integrative rather than fixed-sum, and both sides were able to get what they wanted.

Laboratory studies have also demonstrated the benefits of communication. Leigh Thompson (1991) found that groups in negotiation did not always effectively communicate, but those that did were more able to reach compromises that benefited both parties. Although the parties came to the situation expecting the game to be a fixed-sum situation, communication allowed them to learn that the situation was actually integrative—the parties had different needs that allowed them to achieve a mutually beneficial solution. Interestingly, Thompson found that it did not matter whether both parties involved in the dispute were instructed to communicate or if the communication came in the form of questions from only one of the two participants. In both cases, the parties who communicated viewed the other’s perspectives more accurately, and the result was better outcomes. Communication will not improve cooperation, however, if it is based on communicating hostility rather than working toward cooperation. In studies in which individuals played the trucking game, for instance, the communication was generally in the form of threats and did not reduce conflict (McClintock, Stech, & Keil, 1983).

The Tit-for-Tat Strategy

In social dilemma games that are run over a number of trials, various strategies can be used by the parties involved. But which is the best strategy to use in order to promote cooperation? One simple strategy that has been found to be effective in such situations is known as tit-for-tat. The tit-for-tat strategy involves initially making a cooperative choice and then simply matching the previous move of the opponent (whether cooperation or competition).

Computers have been used to simulate the behavior of individuals who use the tit-for-tat strategy over a series of interactions in comparison with other approaches for determining whether to cooperate or compete on each trial. The tit-for-tat strategy has been found to work better than outright cooperation or other types of strategies in producing cooperation from the parties (Axelrod, 2005; Fischer & Suleiman, 2004; Van Lange & Visser, 1999).

The tit-for-tat strategy seems to be so effective because, first, it is “nice” in the sense that the individual first cooperates and signals a willingness to cooperate. Second, the strategy seems to be successful because, as it is relatively simple and easy to understand, others can clearly see how the choices are being determined. Furthermore, the approach sends a clear message that competitive choices on the part of the other will not be tolerated and that cooperation will always be reciprocated. It is quick to punish but it is equally quick to forgive. The other party cannot take advantage of a person who is using tit-for-tat on more than one trial because if they try to do so, the result will always be retaliation in the form of a competitive choice on the next trial. Indeed, it has been found that having people play against a partner who uses the tit-for-tat strategy can help them learn to be more cooperative, particularly once they become aware what the strategy is and how it is being used (Sheldon, 1999). The tit-for-tat strategy seems particularly effective because it balances self-concerned and other-concerned responses in an easy-to-understand way.

Despite the fact that it generally works better than most other strategies, tit-for-tat is not perfect. One problem is that because people are more likely to behave competitively than cooperatively, tit-for-tat is more likely to lead opponents to match noncooperative responses than to follow cooperation with cooperation, and thus tit-for-tat may in some cases produce a spiral of conflict (Kelley & Stahelski, 1970). This is particularly likely if the opposing party never makes a cooperative choice, and thus the party using tit-for-tat never gets a chance to play cooperatively after the first round, or in cases in which there is some noise in the system and the responses given by the parties are not always perceived accurately. Variations of the tit-for-tat strategy in which the individual acts more cooperatively than demanded by the strategy (e.g., by giving some extra cooperative trials in the beginning or being extra cooperative on other trials) have been found to be helpful in this regard, although they do allow the opponent to exploit the side that is using tit-for-tat.

Formal Solutions to Conflict: Negotiation, Mediation, and Arbitration

In some cases, conflict becomes so extreme that the groups feel that they need to work together to reach a compromise. Several methods are used in these cases, including negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

Negotiation is the process by which two or more parties formally work together to attempt to resolve a perceived divergence of interest in order to avoid or resolve social conflict (Thompson, Wang, & Gunia, 2010). The parties involved are often social groups, such as businesses or nations, although the groups may rely on one or a few representatives who actually do the negotiating. When negotiating, the parties who are in disagreement develop a set of communication structures in which they discuss their respective positions and attempt to develop a compromise agreement. To reach this agreement, each side makes a series of offers, followed by counteroffers from the other side, each time moving closer to a position that they can each agree on. Negotiation is successful if each of the parties finds that they have more to gain by remaining in the relationship or completing the transaction, even if they cannot get exactly what they want, than they would gain if they left the relationship entirely or continued the existing competitive state.

In some cases, negotiation is a type of fixed-sum process in which each individual wants to get as much as he or she can of the same good or commodity. For instance, in the sale of a property, if the seller wants the highest price possible, and the buyer wants the lowest price possible, the compromise will involve some sacrifice for each, or else it will not occur at all if the two parties cannot find a price on which they can agree. More often, the outcome of the negotiation is dependent upon the ability of the two parties to effectively communicate and to dispel negative misperceptions about the goals of the other party. When communication and trust are obtained in the situation, the parties may find that the situation is not completely fixed-sum but rather more integrative. The seller and buyer may be able to find an acceptable solution that is based on other aspects of the deal, such as the time that the deal is made or other costs and benefits involved. In fact, negotiators that maintain the assumption that the conflict is fixed-sum end up with lower individual and joint gain in comparison with negotiators who change their perceptions to be more integrative.

Negotiation works better when both sides have an open mind and do not commit themselves to positions. It has been argued that negotiation is most beneficial when you take a position and stick to it, no matter what, because if you begin to compromise at all, it will look like weakness or as if you do not really need all that you asked for. However, when negotiators do not allow any compromise, the negotiations are likely to break off without a solution.

Negotiation is often accompanied by conflict, including threats and harassment of the other party or parties. In general, individuals who are firm in their positions will achieve more positive outcomes as a result of negotiation, unless both sides are too firm and no compromise can be reached. However, positive and cooperative communication is an important factor in improving negotiation. Individuals who truthfully represent their needs and goals with the other party will produce better outcomes for both parties, in part because they become more aware of each other’s needs and are better able to empathize with them. Parties that are in negotiation should therefore be encouraged to communicate.

In some serious cases of disagreement, the parties involved in the negotiation decide that they must bring in outside help in the form of a “third” party, to help them reach an equitable solution or to prevent further conflict. The third party may be called upon by the parties who are in disagreement, their use may be required by laws, or in some cases a third party may rather spontaneously appear (such as when a friend or coworker steps in to help solve a dispute). The goal of the third party is to help those who are in conflict to reach agreement without embarrassment to either party. In general, third-party intervention works better if it is implemented before the conflict is too great. If the level of conflict is already high, the attempts to help may increase hostility, and the disputants may not consent to third-party intervention.

Mediation involves helping to create compromise by using third-party negotiation (Wall & Lynn, 1993). A mediator is a third party who is knowledgeable about the dispute and skilled at resolving conflict. During the mediation, the conflicting parties usually state the facts from their own perspective, which allows the mediator to determine each party’s interests and positions.

Mediators have a number of potential tactics that they can use, and they choose which ones seem best depending on the current state of affairs. These tactics include attempting to help the parties have more trust in each other, conferring with each of the parties separately, and helping them to accept the necessity of compromise. Through these tactics, the mediator may be able to reduce overt hostility and increase concern with understanding the others’ positions, which may lead to more integrative solutions. If necessary, the mediator may attempt to force the parties to make concessions, especially if there is little common ground to begin with. Mediation works best when both parties believe that a compromise is possible and think that third-party intervention can help reach it. Mediators who have experience and training make better mediators (Deutsch, 1994).

Finally, another option is arbitration, a type of third-party intervention that avoids negotiation as well as the necessity of any meetings between the parties in conflict. In the most common type of arbitration—binding arbitration—both sides agree ahead of time to abide by the decision of the third party (the arbitrator). They then independently submit their offers or desires along with their basis for their claims, and the arbitrator chooses between them. Whichever offer is chosen becomes the outcome, and there is no negotiation (Farber, 2005; Wolkinson & Ormiston, 2006). Arbitration is particularly useful when there is a single decision to be made under time constraints, whereas negotiation may be better if the parties have a long-term possibility for conflict and future discussion is necessary.

Key Takeaways

  • The social situation has an important influence on choices to cooperate or compete, and it is important to understand these influences.
  • Decisions about whether to cooperate or compete are also influenced by expectations about the likely behavior of others.
  • Communication has a number of benefits, each of which improves the likelihood of cooperation.
  • Negotiation, mediation, and arbitration can be used to help settle disputes.

Exercise and Critical Thinking

  1. Choose a real-world dispute among individuals or groups and analyze it using the principles we have considered in this chapter.


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