London: The more people rely on their intuitions, the more cooperative they become, a new study suggests.
It's an age old question: Why do we do good? What makes people sometimes willing to put "We" ahead of "Me?"

Perhaps, our first impulse is to be selfish, and cooperation is all about reining in greed. Or maybe cooperation happens spontaneously, and too much thinking gets in the way.

Harvard scientists are getting closer to an answer, showing that people's first response is to cooperate and that stopping to think encourages selfishness.

David Rand, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Psychology, Joshua Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology, and Martin Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and of Biology, and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, teamed up for the research.

They recruited thousands of participants to play a "public goods game" in which it's "Me" vs. "Us." Subjects were put into small groups and faced with a choice: Keep the money you've been given, or contribute it into a common pool that grows and benefits the whole group. Hold onto the money and you come out ahead, but the group does best when everyone contributes.

The researchers wanted to know whether people's first impulse is cooperative or selfish. To find out, they started by looking at how quickly different people made their choices, and found that faster deciders were more likely to contribute to the common good.

Next they forced people to go fast or to stop and think, and found the same thing: Faster deciders tended to be more cooperative, and the people who had to stop and think gave less.

Finally, the researchers tested their hypothesis by manipulating people's mindsets. They asked some people to think about the benefits of intuition before choosing how much to contribute. Others were asked to think about the virtues of careful reasoning. Once again, intuition promoted cooperation, and deliberation did the opposite.

"In daily life, it's generally in your interest to be cooperative," Rand said. "So we internalize cooperation as the right way to behave. Then when we come into unusual environments, where incentives like reputation and sanctions are removed, our first response is to keep behaving the way we do in normal life.

"When we think about it, however, we realize that this is one of those rare situations where we can be selfish and get away with it," he added. The findings have been published in the journal Nature.


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