The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ serves much of our understanding of how society has come to be, but the latest research is showing that it’s actually ‘survival of the most co-operative’ that holds most sway
Imagine you are in prison. You have two choices: testify against your partner in crime, or stay silent. What do you do?
This is the basis of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a metaphorical social dilemma developed by scientists in the 1950s. It considers the question, do people more likely put themselves first for immediate gain or co-operate for the long-term good?
Today, based on new research, many scientists are suggesting that selflessness, not selfishness, is the predominant human trait. They believe the altruistic, compassionate and considerate not only have a better chance of survival, but actually keep the selfish alive.
“Everybody benefits from acting in the longer-term collective interest,” reads the socialdilemma.com website, even though “self-interest is tempting to everyone involved,” it claims.
We needn’t visualise a prison-based scenario to see examples of this moral challenge. Self-interest and a lack of respect and compassion can be seen on a daily basis: in the home; at work; in our economies and on wider global levels. The snowballing effects of selfish instances are huge, say scientists.
“Many societal problems, such as pollution, global warming, overfishing or tax evasion result from social dilemmas,” according to a report published last year by the online journal, Scientific Reports, titled How Natural Selection Can Create Both Self- and Other-Regarding Preferences and Networked Minds.
Taken to the extreme, not only would selfishness be killing the planet but the existence of the human race would be under threat, according to Dr Christoph Adami of Michigan State University.
“Evolution does not favour selfish people. Instead, it pays to be co-operative.”
“Being mean can give you an advantage on a short timescale, but certainly not in the long run – you would go extinct,” he said in his report titled Evolutionary Instability of Zero-Determinant Strategies Demonstrates that Winning is Not Everything.
Published in Nature Communications in 2013, the report reads: “Evolution does not favour selfish people. Instead, it pays to be co-operative.”
These assertions that co-operation and selflessness are life-saving in terms of the environment and human existence therefore pose the question: could co-operation really be an alternative to capitalism? Does co-operation really pay?
It’s an issue which in October 2013 led Ethical Consumer, the research and media co-operative, to publish People Over Capital: The Co-operative Alternative to Capitalism, a book which analyses the failings of capitalist models, and the rich history and successes of co-operatives and co-operation.
In the book, Steve Mandel, an independent consultant who works at the Green Economics Institute writes that the joint-stock company, as the founding stone of the modern capitalist economy, is a “toxic” model, which he believes has led to a large accumulation of capital, a wider gap between the world’s rich and poor, and the unprecedented growth in the use of energy and non-renewable resources.
“This use of resources is now considered to exceed the level that the Earth’s capacity can sustain by about 50%,” he writes. “It [the joint-stock company] has developed in such a way as to be toxic to the expression of common ethical values in our social and political life.
“We need models which foster greater equality, greater participation and can give employees and the wider public a sense of control over their lives – all actions identified as contributing to wellbeing.”
It seems we are hurtling towards an inevitable fate of extinction and deprivation of the Earth’s natural resources, if Dr Adami, Mr Mandel and the above scientists’ findings are accurate. If they are, the starting point for positive change lies only in co-operation, say experts.
Looking back at the Prisoner’s Dilemma, eminent mathematician John Nash believed the only way for both prisoners to achieve a mutually favourable, long-term gain would be if they had the opportunity to communicate.
“The two prisoners are not allowed to talk to each other. If they did, they would make a pact and be free within a month. But if they were not talking to each other, the temptation would be to rat the other out,” he is quoted as saying in Dr Adami’s report.
The importance of communication is also mentioned as a key factor in the above-cited Scientific Reports paper on Natural Selection: “Besides paying attention to networks of companies, economies should also consider paying attention to networks of individual minds, such as social aspects,” the report reads.
“This is of particular relevance for information and communication systems, such as social media. A theory of networked minds could make a significant contribution to the convergence of the behavioural sciences and it might also shed new light on social capital, power, reputation and value, and create a fundamentally new understanding of these.”
The idea of assessing individual values, individual employees’ needs and seeing them as part of a larger network is at the heart of the Barrett Values Centre, a values-based leadership programme devised by Richard Barrett, which is now used in 60 countries to support more than 4,000 organisations.
The Barrett Model, based on the seven levels of consciousness, provides a framework to understand the stages of development in individual and group consciousness. Using cultural values assessments, it studies the values of each individual in an organisation, determining the cultural entropy – the amount of energy in an organisation that is consumed in unproductive work.
“Most employees are 41% or more highly disengaged,” said Richard Barrett, speaking at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference in London in October 2013. “This level of cultural entropy reflects critical problems requiring cultural and structural transformation, selective changes in leadership, leadership development and coaching.
“But if you can measure it, you can correct it.”
This approach to consciousness-centred research, co-operation and value-led leadership is proving a huge success in the corporate banking, insurance, IT, power, retail and telecom sectors. It is also being adopted by NGOs, governments, nations, schools and religious and spiritual institutions.
Grant Kvalheim, co-president of Barclays Capital in New York, who used the Barrett Model, said he was “amazed” at the response.
This idea of the person-centred and communicative approach to success is also supported by Jo Berry, who has worked for more than 10 years to resolve conflict around the world.
“Back in 1994, my father was killed in a terrorist attack. I knew immediately I had to find a way to understand why and who had killed my father,” she said, speaking alongside Richard Barrett.
“Empathy is the biggest weapon we have to end conflict.”
She first met with the man responsible for her father’s killing, Pat Magee, 16 years after her father’s death, and in her willingness to try to understand him opened a path of empathy and compassion.
“Empathy is the biggest weapon we have to end conflict,” she said. Jo and Pat now work together, using the spoken word to communicate and advocate peace across the UK and in areas of conflict including Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Rwanda. “I have learned about the incredible power of empathy and of dialogue,” she added.
With the cost of stress in the workplace costing the US $300bn a year, co-operation and compassion can also help boost our health, says Emma Seppala, the associate director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
“A compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological wellbeing,” says Seppala. “Giving to others even increases wellbeing above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves.”
On the other side of the world, recent research from the Åbo Akademi University in Finland also reveals that humans are happier being at peace with each other, saying that war is not an innate part of human nature.
Part of our nature, however, is determined by a selfish gene, as discussed in Richard Dawkins’ 1974 Selfish Gene study. But recent research has found that this selfish gene would not be able to survive without co-operation, according to Professor Andrew Colman of the University of Leicester.
“You might think that natural selection should favour individuals that are exploitative and selfish,” he said. “But in fact we now know after decades of research that this is an oversimplified view of things, particularly if you take into account the selfish gene feature of evolution.
“It’s not individuals that have to survive, its genes; and genes just use individual organisms – animals or humans – as vehicles to propagate themselves.”
We now know that if we were all selfish, all of the time, we would be extinct. Co-operation pays in a vast range of scenarios: world peace, boosting business, shrinking the gap between rich and poor, increasing self-worth and personal wellbeing, and benefiting the global environment.
Science is showing that co-operation is key to our survival, and intrinsic to our nature, and for co-operation to thrive at any societal level, communication is imperative. Selflessness really does pay.