Cooperation begets cooperation

Volunteers organize to fight a Spring flood in Fargo, ND. Image courtesy of Adam Fetterman.

By Kevin R. Betts

When we anticipate that others will act cooperatively, it is easy for us to cooperate too. Donating money, volunteering, and other altruistic behaviors are all easier to engage in when we trust that others similar to us will engage in similar actions. In contrast, we may hesitate to act cooperatively when we anticipate that others will not follow suit. If we do not believe that others will contribute to collective goals to the same degree we have, our interest in engaging in these cooperative pursuits may begin to dwindle. But what would happen if we acted cooperatively even when we anticipated that others would not? Our cooperative efforts might be taken advantage of initially, but we might also inspire others to begin acting cooperatively down the line.

A study by Rahn (2008) provides evidence for this assertion. She predicted that interpersonal trust would encourage cooperation under some circumstances, while the reverse relationship would be true under other circumstances. That is, cooperation may lead to trust so long as it is reciprocated. To investigate this hypothesis, her research team interviewed 730 adults from 47 different communities. She asked respondents to evaluate the trustworthiness of residents in their community, to indicate their personal level of engagement in their community, and to specify the degree to which they felt they could have an impact on making their community a better place. Additionally, she sought out response rates to the 2000 U.S. Census and crime rates as objective measures of cooperation by community. Her results revealed that in communities characterized by high levels of cooperation, perceived trustworthiness of community members tended to also be high. In some communities, high levels of trust led to cooperation. In other communities, reciprocated cooperation led residents to trust one another.

Rahn’s (2008) findings allude to the idea that cooperation may enhance interpersonal trust so long as that cooperation is reciprocated. Returning to our original question, it may be worthwhile to engage in cooperative acts even when we do not expect others to do the same. If cooperation inspires trust, and trust inspires cooperation, then cooperation may also beget cooperation.

Read more:

Impact your world (CNN)

Rahn, W.M. (2008). Cooperation with and without trust: Evidence from local settings. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 259-274). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts

Astrology, the Forer Effect, and the Allure of Personal Feedback

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

You may have heard some of the recent discussions that the astrological zodiac is actually astronomically inaccurate. Because of shifts in the earth’s axis called precession, similar to how a spinning top wobbles, the traditional zodiac has been drifting out of its original alignment for hundreds of years. That means that old zodiac signs have shifted in date and a new 13th constellation, Ophiuchus, could also be included in the zodiac. Thus, even if you buy into the idea that stars can influence your fate, astrologers have focused on the “wrong” stars for many hundreds of years. Now, hopefully most readers know that astrology is limited to, if we are being generous, “entertainment value” only (see Carlson, 1985 if you need empirical convincing). However, millions of people take astrology seriously, and that makes its appeal a topic of legitimate psychological investigation. So, why do so many people believe that horoscopes provide insight into their lives?

One answer is the Forer Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people are likely to interpret statements or predictions as being personally relevant. However, these statements can apply to nearly anybody. In a 1948 study, psychologist Bertram Forer gave participants a “unique personality analysis” and asked them to rate its accuracy from 1 to 5. The “unique personality analysis” was always the same, but had an average accuracy rating of 4.26. This was the statement:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

The “analysis” above was simply a combination of sentences from several different horoscopes. The effect has been duplicated by other researchers many times, with most people claiming it to be 80% to 90% accurate; it appears nearly any horoscope can apply to nearly any person. One of the tricks to this “accuracy” is to say two statements that appear to be opposites and cover everything in between, eg, “at times you are extroverted, while at other times you are introverted.” A similar trick is to say something that is true of just about everyone, eg, “you need for other people to like you” or “you have considerable unused capacity.” Finally, these statements tend to flatter our own egos. People tend to find personally relevant information satisfying, particularly when it is complementary, as many of the above statements are, eg, “you are an independent thinker.”

While most of you are already aware of the psychological tactics that make astrology convincing to some people, pop psychology can exploit many of the same cognitive biases. When you hear about a psychological analysis method or personality test, be critical, consider the Forer Effect and ask yourself the following questions: What evidence is there to support the claims? Is the evidence peer-reviewed? Is the promoter selling something? Pop psychology can appear convincing because it often appears to have a veneer of academic rigor, and for this reason we must be especially critical and skeptical when considering psychological theories.

Carlson, S. (1985). A double-blind test of astrology, Nature, 318, 419-425.

Dickson, D.H. & Kelly, I.W. (1985). “The ‘Barnum Effect’ in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature”. Psychological Reports, 57, 367–382.

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118–123.

Will Libya be the next Egypt and Tunisia?

Libyans in Dublin march in protest against al-Gaddafi

Representatives of the Libyan Community in Ireland handed a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs today urging the Government, the EU and the UN to stand by the people of Libya. Courtesy of William Murphy, 21 February 2011.

Will Colonel Muarrar al-Gaddafi, the authoritarian leader of Libya, be able to maintain power amid the current protests and uprising or will the story of Libya become similar to that of Egypt and Tunisia?

Al-Gaddafi has brutally controlled Libya without impunity for the last 42 years.  He is one of the longest serving leaders of the country, and he has experienced little threat from dissent or protest in the past because of his repressive methods, but the political climate in the region and the country may empower Libyans to challenge the status quo.

According to research by Drury and Reicher (2005) Libyans might be empowered by protest against al-Gaddafi’s government if collective action is understood as an expression of social identity.  Other research by Mannarini, Roccato, Fedi, and Rovere (2009) similarly points to the role of social identity in determining support for protest, as well as the perception of injustice and the perception that a vast majority of people are behind the movement.  Political pressure, not just from within Libya but from the international community, is highlighting the illegitimacy of al-Gaddafi’s rule.  Emboldened social identity of the Libyan people re-framed in the context of the political changes in Egypt and Tunisia may be enough to tip the tides.

To read more:

Libya: Past and future? – al-Jazeera, 24 February 2011

Drury, J. & Reicher, S. (2005). Explaining enduring empowerment: a comparative study of collective action and psychological outcomes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 35–58.

Mannarini, T., Roccato, M., Fedi, A. & Rovere, A. (2009). Six Factors Fostering Protest: Predicting Participation in Locally Unwanted Land Uses Movements. Political Psychology, 30, 895–920.

Ostracism and School Shootings: What’s the Connection?

By: Megan Birney

In California today a teacher became yet another victim of gun violence in U.S. schools. According to initial reports, the teacher was shot by a student who he’d had an argument with earlier in the day. After years of reading about these horrific school shootings (Wikipedia lists over 45 of these incidents in the last 5 years), many of us are plagued by the following question: Why does this keep happening?

While there is little doubt that school shootings are the result of many complex factors, some research suggests that a combination of feeling ostracized and not in control could lead individuals to act overly aggressive. Reacting to years of ostracism has consistently been cited as a possible motive in the massacres at both Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. Yet Williams (2007) points out that many individuals who experience ostracism respond by increasing the attention they pay to others and consciously trying to please those around them. It seems, then, that ostracized individuals tend to deal with the pain of ostracism in one of two ways: some become more passive while others become more aggressive.

So what determines how an ostracized person reacts? Williams (2007) suggests that the aggression that sometimes follows ostracism may be the individual’s attempt to restore a sense of control over their environment. Because ostracized individuals often feel invisible, acting out in aggressive ways forces others to notice and acknowledge them.  Aggression in this case may be the only way the individual is able to reclaim a sense of control over their environment.

While we continue to come to grips with the tragedy of school shootings, it may be worth keeping these ideas in mind. If we want to stop these acts of violence, we may want to take a closer look at how ostracism impacts other areas of the ostracized person’s life.

Further Reading:

Vocational school teacher shot by student in Los Angeles


Williams, K.D. (2007). Ostracism: The kiss of social death. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 236-237.

Help yourself by helping others: Lessons from the Fargo flood fight

Image created by contributors to the Fargo Forum

By Kevin R. Betts

Around this time of year almost annually, residents of Fargo, ND and surrounding cities get together to do something most people couldn’t imagine doing even once. They self-mobilize to fight a flood that threatens to destroy the livelihoods of thousands of citizens. Residents voluntarily take time off from work or school, show up at various locations specified by city officials, and fill and place millions of sandbags. In 2009, residents witnessed a 43 foot river crest that likely would have overtaken the city without these efforts. With record precipitation levels this year, city officials are again asking residents to volunteer their time to flood protection efforts. This year’s goal: three million sandbags.

If you imagine yourself faced with fighting a flood year after year to save your own city, you might direct your attention to the psychological or financial costs of such a fight. And certainly these costs are real. Yet, as a current resident of Fargo, I can tell you that volunteers in this effort accrue social and psychological benefits as well. I’ve listened to friends and neighbors describe these benefits, as well as experienced them myself. For example, the yearly flood fight brings the region’s citizens together in unique ways. Ensuring that the region is protected from the flood is a common goal that all the volunteers share. Thus, volunteers can often be seen working collaboratively with individuals they might not normally associate with. It is clear that volunteers derive a sense of self-worth from having contributed to these common goals as well. Working together and helping one another feels good. It is with an immense sense of pride that volunteers can say that they themselves prevented an environmental catastrophe.

My observations and experiences in Fargo suggest that volunteer work has social and psychological benefits. Research by Piliavin (2008) supports this notion empirically and takes it one step further. She provides evidence that volunteer work over one’s lifetime contributes not only to positive psychological health outcomes, but also to positive physical health outcomes. She draws these conclusions based on longitudinal data from 10,317 women and men who varied in the extent to which they volunteered throughout their lives. Although the manner in which lifelong volunteer work impacts psychological and physical health is complex, it is not difficult to understand because it follows a relatively straightforward path. First, volunteering enhances social integration. Second, social integration attained through volunteering promotes volunteer motives and identity. Third, this volunteer identity promotes a sense of personal worth from having contributed to helping others. Finally, this sense of personal worth enhances psychological well-being which can impact physical health. This is important. People who volunteer consistently throughout their lives are healthier psychologically and physically as a result.

Although the costs of fighting a flood almost annually are enormous, my observations along with research by Piliavin (2008) suggest that volunteers may accrue some benefits. If you are looking for another reason to volunteer your time to cause that matters to you, remember that you may be doing more than helping others. You may be helping yourself!

Read more

Lines of defense: Fargo planning sandbag distribution around city (Fargo Forum)

Piliavin, J.A. (2008). Long-term benefits of habitual helping: Doing well by doing good. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 241-258). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

See other posts by Kevin R. Betts

We’re all in this together… doing it in our own way

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Yep, this picture is kind of cheesy.For better or for worse, global issues like climate change are bound up with existing social identities (Recap: a social identity is any type of social group in which someone is a member and feels a psychological sense of identification with the group.) This means that the practical scientific issues become entangled with social psychological issues. Protection of the natural environment has become associated with particular identities – you can imagine the stereotype of an environmentalist, and the many epithets this evokes (“granola eater,” “tree hugger,” etc.) This means people who identify as an environmentalist may be spurred to further positive action, but people who do not identify with the stereotype of an environmentalist may be put off from taking positive environmental action. In America, belief in climate change is segregated by party lines.

For issues like climate change, a small group of people, no matter how committed, just won’t be enough to cut it. We need all types of people, especially people that are psychologically repelled from the issue because of antagonism towards the stereotype of environmentalists. This is a problem, but it can be overcome. For example, Cohen (2003) experimentally demonstrated that people did not support political policies based on whether the policy matched their stated political views. Instead, the biggest factor was whether people identified with the political party that proposed the policy – if “we” support it, it must be good, but if “they” support it, it must be bad.

Ultimately, this means that dissimilar people are much more likely to get on board for taking action on climate change if their leaders forge their own self-determined path to promote the issue of climate change. Importing a disliked outgroup’s “brand” of environmentalism can backfire spectacularly. Disparate social groups need their own unique style of environmentalism. Fortunately, that is already happening. For example, Carbon Nation is a new documentary about climate change, aimed at politically conservative people who are typically resistant to the conventional image of environmentalism, and would not respond to a movie like An Inconvenient Truth. In Carbon Nation, the people who speak about climate change are a former CIA director, a conservative Alaskan, an army colonel, and a Texan farmer. To be sure, we need people like Al Gore and the self-identified tree huggers, but – like it or not – we especially need the hunters, the blue collar workers, and the truck drivers if we are to see effective public action on climate change. You can see the trailer for Carbon Nation here:

If you want a more detailed look at these kinds of issues, my PhD research uses experimental studies to investigate social identity’s role in environmental issues.

Cohen, G.L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 808–822.

Duke, C. C. (2010). Social identity and the environment: The influence of group processes on environmentally sustainable behaviour.

‘Will Carbon Nation succeed where An Inconvenient Truth failed?’ The Guardian.