Press Release: Research team uncovers the conditions for cooperative interactions in everyday life

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 - Toulouse. An international research team in psychology documented everyday experiences of individuals and romantic couples and developed a new understanding of cooperative behaviors.

Everyday social interactions are incredibly varied and yet can be described based on common underlying characteristics. How much do people depend on each other? Are their interests in conflict? Does somebody have power over another? Using innovative methods, a team of pyschologists: Simon Columbus (VU Amsterdam) and Catherine Molho (IAST), together with Francesca Righetti and Daniel Balliet (VU Amsterdam) studied the characteristics of thousands of social interactions in the everyday lives of individuals and romantic couples. Their findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, help develop a new understanding of everyday cooperation.

Different philosophical traditions paint antithetical pictures of everyday life interactions. One perspective on human nature, famously captured in Hobbes’ Leviathan, pictures individuals as independent agents, fiercely competing and using their power to achieve conflicting goals. A different perspective is captured in Rousseau’s depiction of human life as deeply interdependent, often involving egalitarian interactions in which people strive for mutual gain. How do people themselves experience their everyday interactions in terms of mutual dependence, conflict of interests, and relative power? In which situations can they better achieve cooperation?

Their research used novel methods to document the everyday experiences of large community samples in the Netherlands. Individuals and romantic couples described their social interactions, throughout the day over the course of one week, allowing the researchers to describe the most frequent and impactful patterns of daily interdependence.

Their findings brought to the forefront the prevalence of benign, cooperative interactions in everyday life. In a variety of relationships—with romantic partners, family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers—people most frequently thought of their interactions as mutually dependent, as allowing the pursuit of joint gains, and as mostly involving equal power. Romantic partners who gave separate descriptions of the same interactions showed substantial agreement in their perceptions and in their reports of each other’s cooperative behaviors.

Cooperative behaviors were more prevalent in interactions with certain characteristics: the less independence and conflict of interests people experienced, the more frequently they behaved in ways that were beneficial for others. Conflicts of interests seemed particularly devastating for cooperation, and this pattern was worsened in mutually dependent interactions and when people had unequal power. Yet, the researchers found that conflict of interests can also serve as an opportunity in close interpersonal relations. Typically, conflicts of interests decreased future trust, relationship satisfaction, and commitment. However, these negative consequences disappeared when romantic partners managed to respond to conflicting interests with cooperative, prosocial behavior.

This research has deep implications for our understanding of human cooperation. Much research—and public policy—assumes that conflicts of interest are not only impactful but also frequent. These studies however show that people themselves report more situations with corresponding interests. Such situations do not require enforcement of cooperative norms, but call for effective means to help people coordinate their behavior.

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