12. Competition and Cooperation in Our Social Worlds

Chapter Summary

This chapter has examined how goals of self-concern and other-concern relate to our tendencies to cooperate or compete with others and how these individual goals can help us understand the behavior of large groups of people, such as nations, societies, and cultures. Most generally, we can say that when individuals or groups interact, they can take either cooperative or competitive positions. Competition frequently leads to conflict, in which the parties involved engage in violence and hostility. Although competition is normal and will always be a part of human existence, cooperation is also built into the human repertoire.

One type of situation in which the goals of the individual conflict with the goals of the group is known as a social dilemma. Social dilemmas have an important impact on a variety of important social problems because the dilemma creates a type of trap in which even though the individual or group may want to be cooperative, the situation leads to competitive behaviors. Although social dilemmas create the potential for conflict and even hostility, such outcomes are not inevitable. The solutions to social dilemmas are more favorable when the outcomes are integrative rather than fixed-sum.

Conflict is sometimes realistic, in the sense that the goals of the interacting parties really are incompatible. However, although many situations do create real conflict, conflicts are often more perceived than realistic because they are based on misperceptions of the intentions of others or of the nature of the potential rewards.

As humans, our desires to cooperate are guided in part by a set of social norms about morality—the set of social norms that describe the principles and ideals, as well as the duties and obligations, that we view as appropriate and that we use to judge the actions of others and to guide our own behavior. Two types of morality are social conventional morality and harm-based morality.

An essential part of morality involves determining what is “right” or “fair” in social interaction. We determine what is or is not fair by relying on another set of social norms, called social fairness norms, which are beliefs about how people should be treated fairly. One type of social fairness, known as distributive fairness, refers to our judgments about whether or not we are receiving a fair share of the available rewards. Procedural fairness refers to beliefs about the fairness (or unfairness) of the procedures used to distribute available rewards among group members.

Individuals who have low status may nevertheless accept the existing status hierarchy, deciding that they deserve what little they have, a phenomenon known as false consciousness. Individuals with low status who do not accept the procedural fairness of the system may try to gain status, for instance, by leaving the low-status group to which they currently belong. Or they may use social creativity strategies that allow them to perceive their group as better than other groups, at least on some dimensions. Or they may resort to attempts at collective action to change the social status hierarchy by improving the status of their own group relative to others.

The behavior of individuals in conflict situations has frequently been studied using laboratory games in which conflict is simulated. In the prisoner’s dilemma game, the rewards to be gained for making a cooperative or a competitive choice are displayed in a payoff matrix. The matrix is arranged so that competition is most beneficial for each individual, and yet if the players each choose the cooperative choice, each of them will gain. Other types of laboratory games include resource dilemma games and the trucking game.

There are individual differences in cooperation and competition, such that those who are more self-oriented are more likely to compete, whereas those who are more other-oriented are more likely to cooperate. The dual-concern model suggests that individuals will relate to social dilemmas or other forms of conflict in different ways, depending on their underlying personal orientations. Although women do compete less than men in some situations, they compete about as much as men do in other situations. And there are also cultural differences in cooperation.

One factor that determines whether individuals cooperate or compete is the nature of the situation itself. If we can make the negative consequences of competition and the positive consequences of cooperation more salient, we will be likely to create more positive behaviors. Decisions about whether to cooperate or compete are also influenced by expectations about the likely behavior of others. Smaller groups are more cooperative than larger ones and also make better use of the resources that they have available to them. Communication has a number of benefits, each of which improves the likelihood of cooperation. In some cases, conflict can become 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.

Learning about the nature of cooperation and competition may help you think more creatively about how to respond to conflict in your everyday life, make you more aware of the benefits of cooperating, and lead you to actively try to promote cooperative behaviors in your community.

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