What follows is an overview of Michael Price (Brunel University, London) and Dominic Johnson’s (Edinburgh University) ‘Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’, as outlined in Gad Saad’s (2011) Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences.
To help explain organizational cooperation from an evolutionary perspective, Price and Johnson developed the ‘Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’- abbreviated to ATCG.
The acronym has double meaning- any hardcore science nerds will note that ATCG is also the acronym of the four bases of DNA (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine). The authors note this conveniently highlights the theory’s biological foundations.
The reasoning behind an evolutionary perspective of group cooperation is this; “Managers could more efficiently promote cooperation within their organizations if they had greater understanding of how evolution designed people to cooperate.” (p. 95)
The authors synthesised evolutionary research from an individual-level adaptationist perspective into a coherent theory of group cooperation. The basic premise is that people cooperate in groups to maximize their individual fitness (their ability to survive and reproduce).
ATCG takes into account ethnographic and archaeological evidence which suggests that in environments where humans evolved, cooperating in groups (whether for hunting, warfare, shelter construction, predator defence, etc) provided individuals benefits they could not have obtained by themselves. For example, group cooperation not only ensured more meat produce for less effort exerted compared to hunting alone, but also reduced the risk of starvation (as catches were pooled and distributed evenly among hunters).
The benefits of group cooperation transcend reciprocation from fellow cooperators (‘reciprocal altruism’). ATCG also implies the benefits of cooperation can involve much more than just a share of the first-order benefits, such as more meat. Price and Johnson note that cooperation also enhances individuals’ social status (‘competitive altruism’). For example, a skilled hunter would be highly valued by the group, which would attract many kinds of resources, which would thus make the hunter more attractive to females.
This is not just theoretical: field studies demonstrate that hunting skills is associated with social status and reproductive success in hunter gather societies (see Smith, 2004).
Group Cooperation in Organizations
Price and Johnson argue that modern organizations use these benefits to increase group cooperation:
“The method of motivating employees that is used in most organizations is to offer them social status in exchange for their help in producing the first-order resource. And just as in the ancestral past, higher status contributors – those on whom production most depends – attract greater economic compensation, in order to convince them to remain in the organization and to continue to contribute.” (p. 100)
Interestingly, the authors question whether cooperation is always a good thing. For example, the authors cite classic group decision making research which demonstrate that ‘nominal’ groups (aggregated ideas of individuals working alone) generate superior ideas than groups of interacting individuals.
A key issue regarding group cooperation is an ancient human dilemma: the free rider problem. Especially with larger groups, there is always the temptation of minimizing outputs whilst letting other group members do the hard work (also known as ‘slacking’).
In order to motivate employers to behave in group beneficial ways, Price and Johnson suggest allocating rewards fairly, and to allow employees to compete for these rewards by contributing in ways that most benefit the organization:
“If an employee makes a contribution that benefits the organization, for example by introducing a product improvement or new marketing strategy, a manager should never assume that the employee was selflessly motivated or is indifferent about being recognized and rewarded for this contribution, even if that employee modestly plays down the extent of his or her own contribution. If an employee does not receive some individual-level benefit that is commensurate with the value of his or her contribution, the employee will probably feel angry and exploited and lose motivation to cooperate…” (p. 105).
A key assumption of ATCG is that in order to cooperate adaptively, group members must ensure that their ‘benefit-to-contribution ratios’ are no smaller than those of co-members. In other words, that their efforts do not exceed that of fellow group members. If they do, these need to be compensated accordingly.
And here we get to the heart of the issue: the ‘frequency dependence’ of cooperation.
What is the best strategy for an individual is dependent on that of other group members: whether they are free-riding, reciprocating, or unconditionally cooperating.
In a population made up predominantly of free-riders, the superior strategy from an individual perspective is to avoid all free-riders and to identify and collaborate with fellow cooperators. If the population is dominated by reciprocators, it makes the most sense to unconditionally cooperate- as you get all the benefits of cooperation and also minimize the costs of verification and checking. However if the population is dominated by unconditional cooperators, the population is inevitably invaded by free-riders- because cheaters can exploit their over-trusting cooperativeness.
According to ATCG, there is such a thing as being too trusting.
You can also think of frequency-dependence as a game of paper, rock scissors. The successful strategy depends on the strategy pursued by others.
ATCG proposes many novel predictions, over and above traditional organizational psychology theories such as equity theory. For example, ATCG predicts is that individuals who have more to gain from engaging in competition will be relatively pro-equity, rather than pro-equality. Similarly, sex differences regarding cooperation are highlighted. As men usually gain more reproductive benefits from social status than women, ATCG acknowledges that males tend to have a greater desire to compete.
Male competitiveness is also a key driver of group cooperation. Mark Van Vugt and his colleagues’ experimental research demonstrated that males increased their in-group cooperation significantly in response to competition from rival groups, whereas females were relatively unaffected by this competition.
Group Cooperation ≠ Group Selection
What is noticeable is how dismissive the authors are about group selection. Price and Johnson argue that group selection theory adds no advantages or predictive power above individual-level selection. But is this true?
Biologist David Sloan Wilson and his colleagues managed to challenge several decades worth of research on group decision making by applying a group selection perspective to the subject matter. Contrary to conventional group decision making research suggesting that groups reach sub-optimal decisions as compared to that of individuals, DS Wilson’s innovative research illustrated that groups out-compete individuals when the complexity of the task increases- as would be expected from group selection (and common sense).
Noticeably, Price and Johnson didn’t cite this research.
More fundamentally, can the rise of empires, nation states and multinational corporations over the last 10,000 years be explained as by-products of reciprocal altruism? Probably not.
Rather, ‘Cultural Multilevel Selection’ provides greater explanatory power regarding the rise of human civilisations.
Think of the hundreds of millions of servicemen that died defending their country throughout history. Staring death in the face, did these soldiers really calculate their ‘benefit-to-contribution ratios’ of engaging in lethal combat?
Arguably ‘pure altruism’ does exist, although it is probably a slither of humanity. As Jonathan Haidt states in The Righteous Mind, we humans are ‘90% chimp and 10% bee’.
There are infrequent but highly impactful situations where individuals will sacrifice their welfare for the benefit of the group, and new research suggests when and why this happens: when a society faces an existential threat from a rival group.
Of course, this is in the context of group survival and military combat. Organizations such as corporations are unlikely to elicit such altruistic behaviour.
One can envision a ‘Multilevel Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’, which incorporates these diverse findings into a coherent theory.
Written by Max Beilby
Click here to buy a copy of Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences.
Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.
Smith, E. A. (2004). Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success?. Human Nature, 15(4), 343-364.
Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books
Van Vugt, M., & Ahuja, A. (2011). Naturally selected: The evolutionary science of leadership. HarperBusiness.
Van Vugt, M., De Cremer, D., & Janssen, D. P. (2007). Gender differences in cooperation and competition: the Male-Warrior hypothesis. Psychological science, 18(1), 19-23.
Wilson, D. S., Timmel, J. J., & Miller, R. R. (2004). Cognitive cooperation. Human Nature, 15(3), 225-250.
Wilson, D. S., Van Vugt, M., & O’Gorman, R. (2008). Multilevel selection theory and major evolutionary transitions: implications for psychological science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(1), 6-9.