Co-operative Behaviour: Neuroscience Insights - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #185

Co-operative Behaviour: Neuroscience Insights

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Co-operation is essential for the functioning of human societies — and several current public policy initiatives, including health and lifestyle and environmental campaigns, depend upon it. Many attempts to persuade people to co-operate and collaborate, however, fail — or succeed for only a limited time. Understanding the neural mechanisms for co-operation can help in developing more effective ways of promoting collective behaviour and in designing policies to achieve societal aims.


A growing number of studies in both the field and the laboratory demonstrate that people are imperfect co-operators — they tend to co-operate only if others do so, and a significant minority don’t co-operate at all. This pattern of behaviour causes unstable co-operation levels and often results in the disappearance of positive collective action over time. How can co-operation be induced and sustained? What processes are important in encouraging co-operation?

"Contrary to Game Theory predictions, people do not act purely out of self-interest."

Classical economy theory has so far failed to provide the answers to these kinds of questions. Models such as Game Theory, developed partly to understand situations in which decision-makers interact, have proved to be fundamentally flawed. Ample research has shown that, contrary to Game Theory predictions, people do not act purely out of self-interest and are instead influenced by a wide range of psychological factors — for example, the need for reciprocity and fairness and feelings of vengeance, empathy and guilt — that can both enhance and reduce co-operative behaviours.

The nascent research field of neuroeconomics (see Ideas 183 and 184) is now shedding new light on some of these factors. By combining game theoretic models (for example, interactive games in which players are given incentives to co-operate or not co-operate) with the measurement of brain activity, they’re showing the neurobiological basis for collective behaviour.

One of the most consistent findings across these neuroeconomic studies is that co-operative behaviour is highly associated with activation in brain areas known to be involved in reward-based learning, such as the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC).
Neuroimaging studies have also found that:

  • Co-operation with others can be inherently satisfying — and that it’s not contingent on the prospect of material reward. (A 2004 experiment, for example, found increased activity in the reward system of the brain for mutual co-operation decisions, even when controlling for the amount of money earned by the decision itself.)
  • Playing games with another human being is more satisfying (rewarding) than playing with a computer partner.
  • The learning of co-operative behaviour is partly dependent on reciprocation — we tend to co-operate, over the longer term, with those who behave well towards us.
  • Co-operation can be motivated by the anticipation of guilt — activity in regions of the brain associated with ‘negative affective states’ increases when people match the expectations of other players.
  • The ability to understand the mental states of others, traditionally referred to as ‘theory of mind’, plays an important part in co-operation.
  • Co-operation is context-specific, depending partly on prior knowledge of others and their trustworthiness.


By showing how emotions and social factors influence decision-making, the research helps to explain why rational arguments often fail to persuade people to change their behaviours, and has clear implications for the design of government initiatives — for example, public health campaigns.

It also underlines more general leadership principles:

  • Role models, trust and example-setting are essential — reciprocal leader-follower models help sustain co-operation.
  • Financial rewards, though important, can be less powerful motivators than psychological or ‘affective’ rewards — e.g. job satisfaction.
  • Social interaction and camaraderie in the workplace can strengthen the desire to co-operate. (The more connected people feel to others the more motivated they’ll be to behave in the collective interest.)
  • Didactic messages and prescriptive models are limited leadership and motivational tools. (Followers need to have positive social and psychological reasons for co-operation.)



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Idea conceived

May 1, 2013

Idea posted

Jul 2013
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