Conflict versus Cooperation in Human Nature.

One thing I used to do early in undergraduate classes is to ask students if humans were inherently more conflictual or cooperative. I noted that all primates and many other animal species had both traits, but that humans were particularly elaborate in their approach to each. I also noted that the highest form of human cooperation is war, where large numbers of humans cooperate in complicated maneuvers that combine lethal and non-lethal technologies over time and distance with the purpose of killing each other.

It was interesting to observe the gender and nationality differences in the response. Males tended to see things as being more conflictual while female students (again, these were 18-22 year olds) tended to see things in a more cooperative light. US students tended to see things  as being more conflictual than kiwi students, although it was also interesting to note the differences between political science majors (who saw things as being mostly conflictual, although here too there were differences between international relations, comparative politics and political theory majors) and those majoring in other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy and fine arts types (I tended to not pay much attention to the opinions of medical students or hard science majors like chemistry or physics students, much less engineering students, simply because these people were pursuing distributional requirements and therefore not that interested in the subject of the courses that I teach, and tend to dwell less on the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in human existence and more on solving practical  problems much as plumbers do–this includes the pre-med and med students I encountered over 25 years of teaching, which says something about the character of those who want to be medical doctors in all of the countries in which I have taught).

Singaporean students exhibit strong gender differences along the lines described above and reinforce everything else I have seen before when it comes to this question. In spite of the constant push by the PAP-dominated State to emphasize racial and cultural harmony, the majority of students I have encountered in 3 years of tutoring and teaching in SG see things as being mostly conflict-driven (with some interesting ethnic dispositions in that regard as well). For all of its official preaching of harmony, SG is very much a conflict-driven place.

I used my own experience to show how one trait or another can be reinforced via socialisation. Coming out of Argentina in the early 1970s  I viewed politics as class war by other means. It was all-out conflict and I was socialised to see it as such and behave accordingly. For the Argentine elite “communists” and other challengers to the status quo had to be eradicated–and often were. For Left militants the imperialist enemy and its local lackeys had to be annihilated if ever Argentina was to be a fair and just country. Needless to say, when I arrived in the US to begin my university studies with this zero-sum view of politics, my undergraduate peers thought that I was nuts–this, even though it was the Nixon/Agnew era and I had all sorts of ideas about how these clear enemies of the world’s working classes could be assisted on the journey to their deserved places in Hell.

Instead, my undergraduate friends preferred the shared comforts of bongs, beers and each other (this was the age before AIDS so such comforts could be pursued in combination in a relatively unfettered manner). They preferred cooperation to conflict, and after unsuccessfully trying to convert a few of them to my more contentious view of life, I decided that When In Rome (before the Fall)… get the picture (although I never did quite give up the view that politics is essentially war by other means, something undoubtably reinforced by my ongoing engagement with Latin America as an academic and US security official).

If one thinks of the difference between Serbs and Swedes, or Afghans and Andorrans, one sees that a major point of difference is the cultural predisposition to conflict or cooperate. Be it individuals, groups or the society as a whole, the tendency to be cooperative or conflictual rests on the relative benefits accrued from either, reinforced over time by custom, practice and experience until it becomes an indelible feature of the social landscape passed on from family to family and generation to generation.

Within otherwise stable societies some social groups are more or less disposed to conflict or cooperation than others. This is not necessarily reducible to class status. Although their social graces may be more refined and the veneer of cooperation makes them appear to be more “civilised,” the rich may be just as prone to conflict as are the poor. Conversely, the working class, when self-conscious and organised, is quite capable of undertaking mass cooperation in pursuit of common goals even if some actions, such as strikes, are clearly conflictual in nature (which again goes back to my adolescent notion that economics as well as politics in a class system are essentially war substitutes given distributional conflict over a limited or finite amount of socially-allocated resources).

One might argue that the advent of market-driven social philosophies, with their common belief that all individuals and groups are self-interested maximizer’s of opportunities, pushed the replacement of cooperative approaches towards the common good with hyper-individualistic, conflictual approaches in what amounts to a feral perspective on the social order. The latter exist in many lesser-developed societies in which pre-modern tensions and capitalist wealth generation create the conditions for abject greed, corruption and despotism. The twist to the tale is that in the advanced liberal democratic capitalist world, the turn to market steerage also appears to have brought with it a turn away from social cooperation and towards social conflict.  Now the tendency towards conflict appears to be the norm rather than the exception and it is no longer social reprobates and sociopaths who engage in conflictual approaches towards inter-personal or inter-group disagreement or dispute resolution.

Which brings up the questions: has NZ followed this sad trajectory in recent years? Has it always been more cooperative than conflictual as a a societal disposition, or is that just a myth that belies that reality of a society with a historical disposition to be in conflict with itself in spite of its peaceful international reputation?

I leave it for the readers to ponder the basic premise as well as the true nature of NZ society then and now.

15 thoughts on “Conflict versus Cooperation in Human Nature.

  1. QUOTE: “…if some actions, such as strikes, are clearly conflictual in nature (which again goes back to my adolescent notion that economics as well as politics in a class system are essentially war substitutes given distributional conflict over a limited or finite amount of socially-allocated resources)” UNQUOTE.

    New Zealand in recent years has been in conflict with itself- on a more truer socialist agenda: “There must be equality.. etc etc” Strikes and social protests of policies get a fair amount of coverage-with texting, emails and unions of any sort to whatever cause. The higher-ups don’t give a heap, or say “Thanks people. We will change our policy for you.” And I often wondered why? What happens next is the ‘feral perspective’ class differentiation- lowers against highers and now in the 21st century, the middles are protesting more. A conflict approach to democracy (if there is even such a thing- democracy I mean) QUOTE: “The twist to the tale is that in the advanced liberal democratic capitalist world, the turn to market steerage also appears to have brought with it a turn away from social cooperation and towards social conflict”. UNQUOTE.

    I have wondered what other avenues a society like New Zealand can do other than conflict-based solutions to social and its domestic policy-based arguments, about how a society ought to live? I get tired of hearing about protests and strikes. They don’t seem to work do they? Think the protest about the War in Iraq was listened to? How about Teacher’s pay?

    In my view then, we as a nation are only more co-operative if we are in a state of emergency- Christchurch earthquake, miners’ dilemma etc. Good comes out of that but with conflictual dispositions we hardly seem to achieve anything substantive. a Blankness descends over our eyes when the TV news, or print news for that matter, has done their hope for more ratings per item of their hour of sensationalism. The Adverts just pumps the adrenaline.

    And so as I get tired of hearing about protest and strikes in a conflictual sense- I am wondering- how else to get the message across. Militarily? Somehow that won’t go down very well!

  2. I tend to think of humans and their societies as incorporating a mix of cooperation and competitiveness. So I am interested in your analysis here, Pablo. I largely agree. But I am wondering about the difference between a cooperation-conflict paradigm and a cooperation-competitive one.

    It seems to me that neoliberalism embraces a strong notion of competition, that doesn’t always overtly appear to be very conflictual. It also tends to privilege individual competitiveness, and blur the notion of this with business, especially corporate, competition. Businesses tend to be treated as individual entities on a par with individual humans.

    But conflict & competitiveness can often incorporate large amounts cooperation, as you say: eg wars, team sports, successful business enterprises etc. So it comes down to the degree of emphasis on one or the other.

    I think NZ, in neoliberal times, has come to put more emphasis on inidivualistic competition than before. But I think there continues to be a long term Kiwi avoidance of too much overt conflict….. except in carefully regulated competitive contexts such as team sports.

  3. I’ve noticed that although our businesses and our market-driven society seem to push us towards an “every-man-for-himself” attitude, every sports and social club that I have been a member of has a core of committed volunteers that keep the club running (seemingly selflessly at times), and a ring of associated members who also volunteer their time as and when they can to help out.

    It appears to me that the Kiwi attitude to fairness and justice tends to temper our self-satisfying urges, and most of us do what we can to help out.

    And although it is easy to bemoan the youth of today as being self-centred (I definitely feel that my generation is more self-satisfying than my parents generation), the organisations that I am involved with (Scouting, car clubs, and roleplaying) has enthusiastic youth and young adult members willing to put in effort to help others.


  4. (I tended to not pay much attention to the opinions of medical students or hard science majors like chemistry or physics students, much less engineering students, simply because these people were pursuing distributional requirements and therefore not that interested in the subject of the courses that I teach, and tend to dwell less on the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in human existence and more on solving practical  problems much as plumbers do

    As far as developing an understanding of the processes on which human nature and morality are built, the “hard” science scientists are now ahead of the social scientists.

  5. Andrew:

    Care to elaborate on that statement? As it stands it is an unsubstantiated opinion that requires defending.

    In other words how, exactly, have hard scientists developed a better understanding than social scientists of the processes upon which human nature and morality are built? The first might be attributable to some form of “hard wiring” that is amenable to scientific analysis and testing, but the construction of morality is much less so and is exactly the sort of thing that philosophers, sociologists and ethicists have pondered for millenia.

    And how is your remark directed to the subject of the post? It reads like petty–and again, unsubstantiated–sniping.

  6. the sort of thing that philosophers, sociologists and ethicists have pondered for millenia.

    So how has all this pondering actually advanced our understanding of morality? To me it seems not at all. A bit like the philosophers of ancient Greece describing atoms.

    I think our understanding has advanced significantly in recent decades though with the recognition that human morality is based on instinct, and that instinct is a product of evolution.

    When we study the behaviour of the great apes we recognise aspects of our own behaviour, we can see that the apes behaviour, including moral their behaviour, is an adaptation to their environment, by studing them rather than ourselves, we have gained insights into our own nature.
    In studying ourselves perhaps we often can’t see the forest for the trees.

    We then have things like game theory, which are starting to do a good job of explaining how humans act when faced with moral dilemmas to advance their own welfare.

    As for the questions you ask, I don’t see them as answerable in any meaningful way, because there’s no metric defined. Should I go to the crime statistics?
    Surely statistics is not what you’re after?
    We know that there are numerous factors that affect how violent society is, homogeneous wealthy societies with high employment in which peoples expectations (whatever they are) are largely met tend not to be violent. In New Zealand some of these contributors to the level of violence have no doubt gotten worse while others have gotten better.

    Having mentioned the crime statistics, its just occurred to me that even they’re probably of little use in some areas, domestic violence has probably increased in the statistics, by I’d bet what is domestic violence by todays standards was considerably under-reported 50 years ago.

    You and I seem to be on different wavelengths when discussing the nature of morality, quite often I’m left sitting here scratching my head trying to understand what it is you’re driving at.

    This guy puts my thoughts better than I can.

  7. Thanks Andrew,

    for the good response. I shall check the link later as I must leave my desk for a while.

    I am not sure that morality is reducible to instinct and contextual factors. Most criminals know that they are doing wrong but do not care. Only psychopaths do not know the difference between right and wrong, so in fact most criminals have the same moral standards but feel justified in violating them (poverty etc., which is what shows up on statistics). I also have some issues with the relativity of ethics, although I understand the argument about situational ethics etc.

    It seems to me that if we accept that in human societies there are some universal truths then there is bound to be some universal moral standards that are a product not of instinct but of shared beliefs, which is what makes for universality. One can say that humans are “hard wired” like apes to be disposed to certain emotive/moral traits, but much of what we learn about mores and norms is not biologically driven. Hence, that is the field that social scientists and humanists have tilled for years, and even if their prescriptions have been less than ideal or have not resulted in the perfectability of humankind, that may be the result of a hard wired propensity towards conflict more than a lack of applicability of higher moral (cooperative) standards.

  8. Are you aware of the work of David Sloan Wilson? He is an evolutionary biologist who is a strong proponent of multilevel selection theory, in which evolution can be considered to act on a number of levels – genes, cells, individuals, societies etc. At each level, cooperation within the group is beneficial to the group (e.g. sharing limited resources fairly), as it ensures such groups can outcompete groups that are non-cooperative. On the other hand, selfish behaviour by members of the group (e.g. one member taking all the resources) will allow those selfish members to outcompete other members within the group and become more successful, but naturally this is a disadvantage to the group as whole (as the group will be outcompeted by more cooperative groups). Therefore, a successful group must have mechanisms available to ensure that such selfish behaviour does not occur, and such mechanisms can be seen at different levels in nature. For example, a chromosome ensures that a large number of genes must be replicated together, preventing any single gene from ‘selfishly’ replicating more often that the other genes which will be to the detriment of group of genes as a whole. In multicellular organisms, there are many mechanisms present to ensure that each cell functions for the good of the group (i.e. the whole organism), and the consequences of those mechanisms breaking down can be seen in cancer.

    Such between-group/within group selection can also be seen to occur at the level of groups of individuals or societies. In humans, while it can be argued that morality and a sense of fairness have evolved to become ‘hardwired’ to benefit society as a whole, it is clear that we the willingness to engage in selfish behaviour is by no means gone (as it is in social insects, for example). However, Wilson makes a point that, in humans, this evolution can occur both at the biological levels and the cultural levels. He argues that many forms of religion are successful because their teachings successful suppress selfish behaviour within their group, thereby promoting the success of members of that religion as a whole. (In more primitive and disconnected societies, this would have occurred at the level the tribe). Of course, cooperation between members of one group does not extend to cooperation between groups, which would explain war and other forms oppression between different groups of humans.

    Successful societies in the past have thrived by suppressingly selfish behaviour. In the current day, I agree that selfish behaviour is being allowed to dominate, particularly in many Western societies. I have no doubt that this is to a detriment to us as a whole. However, humans also have the ability to cooperate and what we need the social mechanisms in place to ensure that this happens. In an ideal sense, this cooperation would extend towards all people on the planet, not just within one tribe, one society or one nation.

  9. wtl:

    Much thanks for the synopsis. I am familiar with what Sloan Wilson and evolutionary biologists have to say on the matter (although I claim no expertise–far from it),and ascribe to the view that the evolution of cooperation is a hallmark of human development.

    But as you noted, inter-group conflict persists. This is more than what Carol has noted is competition (because there are rules for that), and it involves in-group cooperation to do harm to the “others,” which means that conflict remains an innate trait that is brought to the fore one way or another based upon….and therein lies my question.

    What is it, again, the predisposes some to cooperate and other to conflict as a first instinct? Genes? Evolutionary Biology? Socialization? Happenstance? I can think of instances of all of the above, but as the beginning of the post outlined, have always wondered whether we are inherently disposed one way or another.

    Even your excellent synopsis suggests that we are inherently conflictual but have evolved out of that base status. Often times what we so strongly try to overcome is what we are.

  10. You original question is indeed an interesting one. However, I am going to cop out and say there is no answer as to whether we are inherently one way or another. This is simply because I believe that it is the environment (chance and socialisation) which plays the key role in determining whether we behave cooperatively or competitively. Certainly genes and evolved behaviour play a role, but I don’t subscribe to the deterministic point-of-view, where our there is a direct mapping of genes onto behaviour. Instead, I would say that we have an innate repertoire of behaviours and we learn which behaviours to express and when based on our environment – and this is largely determined by those around us.

    Naturally, the interplay is more complex than that, for example, certain genes may predispose certain individuals to act in a certain way, which in turn leads them to associate with certain groups of people, who behave similarly thereby reinforcing those initial predispositions (I would say many of the differences between males and females occur due to this, although the initial driving factor is likely us identifying ourselves as male/female). Nevertheless, I believe it remains possible to influence an individual’s behaviour by changing their environment and the ways those around treat them.

    In evolutionary terms, we are probably only partly evolved out of being conflictual, unlike the more extreme examples of social insects (or at the level below, cells in an organism), which is perhaps why there is no true answer to your question. Our complex brains allow us to choose whether it is ‘better’ to compete or cooperate for each given circumstance. Indeed, having a complex set of behaviours makes each individual human better able to adapt to the environment he or she finds themselves in, ultimately making us humans more successful than we would otherwise be if our behaviours were fixed.

  11. What wtl said at 14:21.

    Here are a few pointers along the lines of what I think we’re all talking about, (not much more than a few random thoughts really).

    Those at the bottom of the social pecking order are likely to favour social reorganization because they have lower status, each of us instinctively yearns to improve our social status because that in evolutionary terms improves our chances of passing on our genes.

    Members of minority groups that feel alienated from mainstream society are more likely to act criminally because they believe their path to improved social status within the wider society is blocked, they effectively form their own societies, and as a result the members of the dominant society become to a large degree outsiders to them, and in human societies, outsiders don’t have the same level of protection.

    Societies that feel secure (economically & militarily) are likely to have liberal moral codes while poor conservative societies are likely have stricter moral codes and to be less tolerant of offenders and are likely to punish them more severely because more liberal moral codes can weaken a societies unity, and therefore its ability to fight off threats.

    As western societies have become wealthier, social spending as a proportion of GDP has increased because once people reach a level of wealth that gives them security they are more willing and able to give to those poorer members of society, and doing so can reduce the discontent and therefore the threat posed by those at the bottom of the social pecking order.

    Those in society that perceive threats to society will have more conservative moral social views because of points above.

  12. if the laws and customs of a society do not create formal mechanisms to discuss and decide social questions, then conflict is likely. a great many people will feel this is ‘their’ society, not mine, and i’m damned if i will co-operate in ‘their’ rules.

    in an oligarchy such as nz, politicians work tirelessly to convince voters they ‘represent’ them. but in a modern society with professional politicians, this notion is patently false and many adults come to understand this. as this alienation grows, so does conflict overwhelm co-operation

  13. not that interested in the subject of the courses that I teach, and tend to dwell less on the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in human existence and more on solving practical problems much as plumbers do

    How do you know, if you weren’t paying attention to them?

  14. Kadin:

    The answer is simple. Their comments on student evaluations and my conversations with them over the course of 25 years of teaching in 4 countries demonstrated that most non-majors were more interested in fulfilling distributional requirements and filling time slots rather than in the subject material. Fair enough, as I had a similar disposition towards “hard” sciences courses during my undergrad years at a US university where such distributional requirements were mandatory (I remember taking a geology class that was nicknamed “rocks for jocks” because of the low academic content and high percentage of varsity athletes in it).

    There are, of course, exceptions to the rule.

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