Apr 17, 2020

Cooperation Makes It Happen: Four Leading Scientists Share Their Insights

How science can help us improve our social responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

By Templeton Staff

Humans are quite possibly the world’s best cooperators. Faced with big threats like disease, war, and natural disasters, we have developed sophisticated ways of confronting collective challenges. Recent scientific research not only helps us understand these hidden rules for cooperation, but also aids us in promoting voluntary positive behaviors that benefit the community, despite imposing some cost to individuals.

The Templeton World Charity Foundation supports fundamental research and development of practical tools to promote long-term human flourishing in fields ranging from evolutionary biology to AI to the social consequences of religion. The subject of cooperation has never been more relevant. As the coronavirus pandemic has deepened, we reached out to leading scholars in the TWCF community to learn about what their research says about cooperation and how we can bring it to bear on the problems of today.

We posed a question to these experts: What can we learn from research on cooperation to provide practical tools to increase social cohesion and action in times of crisis?

Our behavior must adapt and evolve to improve social connectedness.

David Sloan Wilson — SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and founder Prosocial — a non-profit organization that helps groups enhance cooperation and collaboration using evolutionary science

“There are two ways for an individual to succeed. They can succeed at the expense of other members of their group or with other members of their group. With the coronavirus, we have a situation in which the need and incentives to behave as a team are very strong.

Our behavior has an innate component and an adaptive component. The innate behaviors don’t change in our lifetime. If you’re out walking and you’re surprised by a tiger, you’re going to have a huge fear response and run away. That’s what gives us an “us versus them” psychology, and it also dictates our response to disease.

This is where the adaptive component of the behavioral system comes in. We need to actually orchestrate a process of cultural evolution. We need to notice that in South Korea they invented drive-through testing centers. That’s an iterative process, just like the creation and selection of antibodies. Here are two examples: Panic buying is an excellent example of an adaptive response. It’s not part of the solution at all, but it is part of the problem. On the other hand, physical distancing is an interesting adaptive response. We must become more connected than ever before under the constant strain of physical distancing.

Social connectedness is normally communicated through touch, so we must find new ways to gather. There already are countless examples: Italians sing to each other on balconies, and people hold virtual happy hours. Musicians have concerts online, and the audience send emojis instead of applause. Tomorrow we’re having dinner with a friend online.”


Peer pressure can increase altruism and decrease plausible deniability.

Erez Yoeli — MIT Sloan School of Management Research Associate and Director of Applied Cooperation Team

“Reputational concerns shape behavior to be prosocial and altruistic. People tend to be highly responsive to cues of social pressure, and when they see those cues, they increase giving a lot. Without anybody being aware of it, altruism is all happening under the surface.

To be altruistic, a person must make a decision that may be individually costly but also is a benefit to society. Presently, this means social distancing or washing your hands. People rarely make decisions in a vacuum, but rather in a social environment where there is a degree of certainty that others will observe their actions. Observers reward or punish people based on their actions. Observers are also rewarded or punished based on whether they punished or rewarded others the way they were supposed to. Using this punish/reward model, there are three key features for improving cooperation:

When a desired social action occurs, it must be observable to be enforced. Overall most of the behaviors that are being requested in response to COVID-19 are quite observable. That goes a long way for our ability to enforce social distancing. It doesn’t bode so well for handwashing.

We must design requests so there’s no room for plausible deniability. If you fail to comply, there should be consensus that you failed to comply. In the case of COVID-19, it’s really about honing the ask. Instead of just telling people to stay six feet away, say that if both people can reach out and touch fingertips, they’re too close. Don’t tell people to wash their hands for 20 seconds. Instead, tell them to wash their hands for as long as it takes to say the National Anthem. This eliminates any ambiguity.

Lastly, make things concise. If you have a list of asks that is too long, people start to feel like they’ve complied if they’ve done seven out of the 30 things you asked for. The more concise your ask is, the more compelling it feels. Make life easier for people. Reduce the number of plausible reasons people have not to comply.”

We must embrace alternative methods of helping each other.

Athena Aktipis — Arizona State University Assistant Professor of Psychology and Co-Director Human Generosity Project

“Need-based transfers are a universal human trait. When people see that someone is in need, and they have the ability to help, very often people spontaneously help without expecting anything in return. This is especially salient during times of disaster. For instance, the Maasai in East Africa have a rule, osotua. This rule has two parts: You only ask for help if you’re genuinely in need, and if you’re asked for help, you help if you’re able to do so without going below your need for yourself and your family.

Likewise, there’s a group of ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico, and they have a system called “neighboring”, which is essentially neighbors helping neighbors. With situations that are unexpected and uncontrollable, people are not expecting to be repaid for their help, but in situations that are routine, they expect to be repaid.

Using a computer program, we were able to model that if individuals followed need-based transfer rules, they had a much better chance of survival for everyone in the system. We made another model where some agents used the need-based transfer rules and other agents used debit/credit rules, and we found that the need-based transfer rules do better in terms of helping individuals survive.

What’s really relevant is that these need-based transfer systems are a way to manage risk, and they act as an informal insurance system. COVID-19 blindsided everyone. If you look at the economics of it, there were a lot of businesses that didn’t have insurance to cover things related to COVID-19. South by Southwest had insurance to cover terrorism, bad weather and natural disasters, but not a pandemic. In insurance systems, you must know the likelihood of particular events and the likely losses and put it all into an actuarial table to figure out the premium. Osotua systems don’t need this system to be effective.

All of this means you can institute very simple strategies that allow cooperation to be viable, and it’s an important shift that’s already started. When I look at all of the people spontaneously helping and volunteering and putting themselves at risk, I see a really optimistic view of human nature where people really are willing to make a lot of sacrifices for the collective wellbeing.”


Religious institutions are uniquely able to aid people during crises.

Joseph Bulbulia — University of Auckland Maclaurin Goodfellow Chair in Theological and Religious Studies

“Although the pandemic feels extraordinary, human civilizations have repeatedly suffered these events, and we can see this in religious habits and traditions, such as the cleaning basins that Muslims use before they worship. In 2009, we began a national scale longitudinal study of New Zealanders in which we ask people questions about charity given and received. In their own lives, people are always experiencing their own mini-disasters. People lose work, there’s sickness, death, divorce — many disappointments.

In this study, we found that before the 2009 Christchurch earthquake, there was a steady decline of religious affiliation of around 1 percent per year. After the earthquake, religion became more appealing, and we found a 1 to 2 percent increase in religious affiliation. People who had lost their faith tended to fare worse. Long-term secular people were fine wellbeing — because they were drawing on different networks — and religious people were fine as well. In general, religious people tend to give more to their churches, and this leads to a massive hidden giving economy. There’s a lot more volunteering and five times the level of charitable giving among highly religious people.

The COVID-19 pandemic is different. Churches have just been absolutely hammered because people can’t gather. That said, churches have also mobilized extremely quickly to do online work. I wouldn’t say this as a scientist, but my pick is we’ll see some religious galvanization occurring as a result.

Some people are blaming religion for spreading COVID-19, but it’s almost like a mirror held up to people’s prejudices. Epidemics are not new. If we look at the 1918 flu pandemic, we can see Christian missionaries spreading the disease in some cases, but they’re also among the first to respond in many cases. Now, some churches will become much more relevant and important in the longer-term rebuilding phase. We’re seeing so much bad press because churches are gathering places, but this could be a selection for a new kind of sensible religion, just as it could be a selection for a new kind of leader.”


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