Applying the Science of Cooperation

PhD student Taylor Lange and I were recently asked to put together some thoughts on how the growing science of cooperation could be of help to cooperatives for the Cooperative Business Journal. Having looked into it, we are convinced that cooperation science, which draws on behavioral research, can be used to help cooperative businesses and organizations flourish. Here is the article, which highlights a few key points about how paying attention to cooperation dynamics can be useful for *any* organization.

  • Cooperation is often learned in context as a social norm.
  • People often cooperate only if others are cooperating.
  • So cooperation can be ephemeral, if not supported.
  • Cooperation can be supported through reciprocal cooperation, and rules designed to bolster cooperation, rather than extract compliance.
  • It also helps to ensure that acts of cooperation are observable to peers.
  • And to nourish cooperative reputations by establishing social and reputational benefits for cooperative behavior.

How can cooperation science be applied? Our research lab studies cooperation in context and uses cooperation science to design solutions for organizations (like cooperatives), and entire social-ecological systems (like fisheries). We start by measuring cooperation, using behavioral science methods. Each context is different, but the facts of human cooperation don’t change, so we developed a cooperation science toolkit, for use in environmental sustainability, which is becoming useful for organizations generally.

Cooperation research is especially useful for cooperatives. Our research suggests that cooperatives may exhibit greater cooperation than comparable businesses (see research paper), although more work needs to be done to find out if that finding is general. We also have found evidence that the “co-operative principles” have emerged and spread because they work to bolster cooperation, and in the last 170 years have helped coops that employ them (see that research). Of course, cooperatives often manage many of the factors that influence cooperation, either intentionally or accidentally. But using a quantitative scientific approach promises to give cooperatives a power boost.



About Tim Waring

I study the role of cooperation and culture in environmental sustainability, at the University of Maine.
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