Cooperation

In my previous post about coordination, I wrote that pure coordination problems are ones where no teamwork is needed to solve the problem. Pure coordination problems are typically caused by disorderly personal objectives. These objectives have to be organized, either spontaneously or by authoritative command, to solve the problem. The solution of the problem may require that all participants agree to realign their personal objectives in an organized manner, but it does not require that they actively help each other to achieve their personal objectives.

Many other social problems do require cooperation in order to be solved. It might even be said that the reason why group objectives exist is that they cannot be achieved without cooperation. But only in special situations are group objectives a direct aggregate of personal objectives. One situation where this might be the case is if a bus carrying 20 passengers gets stuck in the snow, and all of them have the personal objective to get the bus moving again. The passengers can then and there spontaneously form a group with the shared group objective to get the bus unstuck by pushing it. Although a minimal amount of coordination may be required to ensure that all passengers push on the bus simultaneously, the passengers can in general contribute to the completion of the group task without knowing very much about what the others are doing. Each passenger can push the bus to the extent that her strength, grip and ground support allow, and the combined effort will either suffice to move the bus or not. This is a simple, pure cooperation problem which can be solved by teamwork and elementary group organization because the passengers can easily recognize the group objective.

But groups with more complex group objectives, especially ones where a multitude of different personal objectives are linked to the group objective, can typically not be formed by spontaneous recognition of a shared concern. Instead, an Instigator gathers a group around a group objective which the Instigator has conceived, either by offering others an opportunity to fulfill their personal objectives within the framework of that group objective, or by authoritative or charismatic persuasion. Once the new group has been formed, it starts a group tradition, and this tradition can later have a persuasive effect of its own if it becomes widely known.

For example, an entrepreneur (the Instigator) forms a new business venture with the objective of producing a product or service which he or she envisions will be in high demand. Other people who possess suitable experience or education for furthering this objective can then join the company and espouse its group objective. Their motive for joining is usually that it meets their personal objective of earning a living, and maybe also the personal objective of advancement within a group hierarchy. In the best of cases, appropriating the group objective can also meet their personal objective of spending their time on an interesting and worthwhile cause.

The Instigator may also be a politician who forms a new political movement with the objective of changing something in society, or just with the objective of gaining power. Other people who feel inspired or impressed by the speeches or writings of the Instigator can come to espouse the same group objective if they find it persuasive, possibly because the change that the Instigator advocates is aligned with some of their personal objectives, or just because they find this group objective more meaningful than the objectives proposed by other political movements, and they have a strong personal objective to be a member of a tightly-knit group.

If the business venture or political movement meets at least moderate success, then its tradition and public reputation can help in the recruitment of new members. The greater the success, the greater the group objective grows, and the greater the number of people who align their personal objectives with those of the group. Even after a little bit of growth, the Instigator has to construct an administrative system for meeting the most important personal objectives of group participants (for example by paying salaries, or by organizing political rallies).

This administrative system also has to coordinate the actions of the participants, because complex group objectives never form pure cooperation problems. In a pure cooperation problem, the primary motivation for spontaneous group formation is typically that all participants in the group understand that their shared group objective can be more easily attained through cooperation than through individual actions, and they also spontaneously know how they should cooperate to reach the group objective (getting the bus moving again).

In contrast, group objectives which require coordination + cooperation can only be met if the individuals distribute their tasks in a sensible manner and help each other toward the common group objective. Their chances of succeeding in their group objective are reduced to zero if they cannot divide the group task into a suitable number of complementary individual tasks.

This requires an administrative system, and very often also a hierarchical organization. A leading group or individual oversees and guides the work of the individual participants. Free-riding is a fundamental administrative problem in large cooperative groups. Some participants in the group may not contribute at all towards the completion of the group task if they can just collect a reward without any effort, and without any risk of being caught. In our pure cooperation problem, some of our bus passengers may also be inclined to free ride – they might just pretend to push the bus and hope that other people’s efforts will be enough to get it moving. However, in that case the personal objective is so clearly aligned with the group objective that even the free-rider will decide to make an effort if the others first fail without him. In a large cooperation setting, the free-rider may not have any motivation to make a contribution, even as the cooperative venture flounders.

The administrative system which organizes the work of a large group can utilize a great variety of tools to meet the group objective: incentives, systematic planning and organization, information collection, hierarchical commands. As the group ages, the traditions of the group might become more important than formal administration: new group members may adopt the habits and practices of this tradition in order to fit into the group. This adoption might occur more or less automatically, but it may also be the result of a formalized training program.

In any case, it is the goal of any administrative system to foster cooperation and coordination. But interesting differences often arise in their relation towards competition: some administrative systems are constructed to also foster competition between the members of the group, while others stifle it. Competition can in some cases promote the group objective, but harm it in other cases. This will be the topic of my next essay.

 

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