Why do humans cooperate?
This week Nature published a focus issue on human cooperation that brings together research from evolution, anthropology, ecology, economics, neuroscience and environmental science — to spark interdisciplinary conversation and inspire scientific cooperation.
Cooperation lies at the heart of human lives and society — from day-to-day interactions to some of our greatest endeavours. Understanding cooperation — what motivates it, how it develops, how it happens and when it fails to happen — is therefore an important part of understanding all kinds of human behaviour.
We know that children acquire notions of fairness from a surprisingly early age. However, coordination among adults often fails. Adult participants apparently contribute more when establishing a new collective good, but contribute much less to maintain an existing resource. This should remind us of the comments on teamwork made by W. Edwards Deming more than 30 years ago.
Furthermore, typical anti-corruption strategies may have negative impacts on cooperation that depend on the cultural context. There are no universally applicable recipes that offer a quick fix.
Cooperation often fails when individuals are uncertain about the relative importance of their own effect on a critical, environmental threshold.
Hence, to avoid counter-productive levels of in-group competition, and to encourage cooperation, economic ecosystems and organisations must provide incentives that make cooperation the more attractive option.
Some powerful theories and empirical insights have expanded our knowledge of cooperation over the past few decades — but much remains to be understood. Integrating questions and approaches from different fields may provide fertile ground to achieve this.
What becomes apparent is that mainstream research into human cooperation (so far), with very few exceptions, ignores the influence of neurodiversity.
The damage caused by hyper-competitive cultures
Growing levels of social inequality correlate with a rise in mental health issues throughout the population. The root cause may well relate to the formation of increasingly absurd group identities and associated signals of social status that make it acceptable to exclude the less fortunate. From evolutionary biology we know that in-group competition has negative survival value – it is the opposite of intelligent behaviour.
Apparently the following little anecdote is highly relatable.
Multiple studies confirm that the suicide rates for autists are are several times higher than in the general population.
Elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide apply across the entire autism spectrum. These co-morbid conditions are a reflection of experiences made in the social environment rather than a reflection of autism specific neurology. The latest research confirms that bullying plays a major role:
“Autistic people and families have told us that mental health is their top priority for research. This is not surprising as we know autistic people experience high rates of chronic mental health problems which lead to tragically high rates of suicide. Yet, our knowledge of autism and depression has remained poor. This excellent study tells us that symptoms of depression are elevated in autistic adolescents. The authors found that it was bullying rather than genetic differences which drove an increase in depressive symptoms in autistic people. We now urgently need to carefully understand bullying and other traumatic experiences in autistic people as we’re now finding they can have devastating impact.”
Why do autists often become the targets of bullying?
Due to differences in social cognition neurotypical people are less willing to interact with autistic peers based on thin slice judgements.
… first impressions of individuals with ASD made from thin slices of real-world social behavior by typically-developing observers are not only far less favorable across a range of trait judgments compared to controls, but also are associated with reduced intentions to pursue social interaction. These patterns are remarkably robust, occur within seconds, do not change with increased exposure, and persist across both child and adult age groups. However, these biases disappear when impressions are based on conversational content lacking audio-visual cues, suggesting that style, not substance, drives negative impressions of ASD …
There is a strong consensus within the autistic community that bullying is one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed.
Autists are often noted for their their honesty, their naivety, and their inability to be exploitative. Autistic neurological differences manifest in significant differences in social motivation, setting the scene for a mismatch with cultural expectations. From personal experience, the following situations easily lead to profound misunderstandings:
- Reliance on personal competency networks and ignorance of social hierarchies is easily interpreted as arrogance and not as a critical scientific approach to learning.
- Unwillingness to agree with specific assumptions or conclusions is easily interpreted as having a strong ego and a desire to be right, and not as a cautious reluctance to jump to conclusions or reluctance to endorse assumptions in the absence of adequate supporting evidence.
- Giving others full autonomy over how they do their work is easily interpreted as a lack of management skill, and not as a form of trust based non-hierarchical collaboration that welcomes creativity and individual agency.
- Providing others with clear and detailed description of expected results of a piece of work is easily interpreted as a form of micro-management, and not as a clean separation of concerns based on deep domain knowledge.
- Pointing out unknowns and uncertainties is easily interpreted as a lack of relevant experience or a lack of confidence, and not as an honest assessment of the situation at hand based on deep domain knowledge.
Neurodiversity at the core of anti-bullying initiatives
The lack of social competition in predominantly neurodivergent teams affords such teams a distinct collaborative edge, especially when compared against typical teams within a highly competitive socioeconomic context.
Neurodivergent teams are uniquely positioned to identify spurious cultural complexity within organisational systems and interaction patterns. This creates interesting learning opportunities for organisations that are plagued by counter-productive in-group competition.
Establishing one or more predominantly neurodivergent teams can act as a catalyst for cultural change in neighbouring teams.
Everyone can relate to the toxic effects of bullying, yet only few people are familiar with neurodiversity and autistic cognition from a first-hand perspective. Launching an anti-bullying initiative is a great opportunity to frame neurodiversity in a positive and non-pathologising way, and to educate people about the social model of disability.
Further steps towards appreciation of neurodiversity
In Auckland, I am currently planning the following activities:
- Regular Meetups to offer mutual support for neurodivergent families and individuals.
- A series of public discussion between autistic people, to present a realistic non-pathologising picture of autism and of living in a neurotypical world from an autistic perspective. Dialogues between autists are one of the most powerful forms of sharing autistic experiences. Otherwise we tend to be dismissed as individuals with amusing opinions. If you know of aspies and autists in Auckland who might be interested in participating please let me know.
The aim is for students, academic staff, teachers, parents, and the general public to learn more about neurodiversity and autism, and also about the connection between neurodiversity and human creativity. These activities are a further practical step to reduce workplace bullying.
Celebrating neurodiversity in your organisation
Organisations that claim to be supportive of neurodiversity must shift from a pursuit of a competitive edge to the pursuit of a collaborative edge.
Recommended steps include:
- Focus on organisational / team based performance, and abolish of all forms of individual performance reviews as advocated by W. Edwards Deming, to establish an environment that does not encourage in-group competition.
- Establish teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, to prompt the development of specific collaborative practices that are aligned with the purpose of the organisation.
If you have questions, consult the autistic community, for example one of these autists who are committed to autistic collaboration.
If you find yourself in a work environment where you frequently have to mask or tend to be penalised for taking risks, making mistakes, raising problems, asking questions, or disagreeing with your colleagues, you are in an unsafe environment.
You can use the Bullying Alert System on this website to report the context of your situation in anonymised form.