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:
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:
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