What’s the best way to promote cooperation in fragmented societies? Research by MIT Sloan School of Management’s Naghmeh Momeni sheds light on the question

Findings suggest that optimal inter-connections can promote collective goodwill

Cambridge, Mass., July 18, 2018—What’s the best way to encourage cooperation in an otherwise uncooperative group? It’s a question that anyone who’s ever tried to create an atmosphere that promotes working together for the greater good—from corporate managers and government bureaucrats to classroom teachers and parents of obstinate siblings—has asked.

Today, a new study* by Naghmeh Momeni, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Management Science at MIT Sloan School of Management, and her colleagues, Babak Fotouhi and Martin A. Nowak at Harvard University, and Benjamin Allen at Emmanuel College, provides a possible answer.

Through mathematical analysis, simulations and examples from real-world social networks, the researchers found that the key to cultivating cooperation in fragmented societies lies in the creation of sparse connections—similar to bridges and brokers—between the disparate groups. The study appears in the latest issue of Nature Human Behavior.

“At its core, the act of cooperation is a cost benefit analysis: If I cooperate and you don’t, you get a benefit and I pay a cost. If you cooperate and I don’t, I gain the advantage and you pay a cost,” says Momeni. “As a result, cooperation often requires a level of trust and connectedness. But based on our findings, it’s clear that cooperation does not require connections between each and every individual in a society or group. Rather, conjoining the groups through even just a few representatives or individuals has a tremendous positive effect on cooperation.”

This new study builds on the team’s previous research. Last year, Momeni and her colleagues published a study on how cooperative behaviors spread across a network via natural selection. They found that cooperation flourishes when there are robust pairwise connections between individuals.

“In that study, we defined the threshold at which cooperation is favored,” she says. “In this new study, we wanted to look at societies where cooperation falters. In these societies, spite can become the norm: individuals are willing to pay a cost for others to lose.”

The researchers used an adapted branch of mathematics known as evolutionary graph theory, which makes it possible to study biological and social evolutionary dynamics on networks, to look at population structures where cooperation is stymied. The study also included real-life examples: a fourth grade class, for instance. In the class the sparse connections served as olive branches that promoted an atmosphere of harmony and collaboration. In all of the examples, conjoining the groups through even just a few representatives, brokers, or bridges had a tremendous effect on outcomes.

To be sure, sparse connections are not the only way to promote cooperation in fragmented societies. There are many tried and true mechanisms, such as increasing social incentives, which revolve around status, reputation, and indirect reciprocity. It’s likely that combining sparse connections with these other means might make this cooperative effect even more pronounced.

* Conjoining uncooperative societies facilitates evolution of cooperation; Nature Human Behavior volume 2, pages 492–499 (2018)