A study has found that people are better off when they cooperate - but only if penalties are involved.
Published in Science magazine, the study was conducted by European scientists and written up by Joseph Henrich of Emory University, Georgia. It took the form of a money game played by a total of 84 people. They could choose to play a version where there were penalties for not contributing to a collective fund, or one where there were no penalties. They were given money each round, which they could keep or donate to the central fund, where interest was earned, which was equally shared.
Two thirds of people first opted for a “no penalties” game. At first, those people were ahead. But as time passed, generous donors were finding they were carrying freeloaders, and scaled back their contributions. Then rewards decreased, and most people ended up joining the game where there were penalties, and those people were better off.
Sounds like it mirrors the evolution of human society. That’s what we’re like: some will contribute to for the good of all. But people benefit more - as a whole - when they’re obliged to cooperate.
This has implications for a wide variety of human activity. It doesn’t account for people who act altruistically without any direct reward. That’s an individual choice some of us make.
But there is a warning on issues that need global action, such as climate change, deforestation, etc. Some countries will forge ahead for the betterment of humanity, but the outcomes are an awful lot better if we had global agreement. We have no better tool for cooperation than international treaties. (the only alternative is violence or its threat.)
On a personal note, I have to reiterate that the refusal of Australia’s Howard government to sign Kyoto - and its abrogation of several other international agreements - is thoroughly disgraceful.