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.
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.