Cooperation is Moral, Across Cultures

People holding hands around the globeAnyone who, as part of their job, tries to get individual workers or managers to cooperate, has dealt with people who feel they can accomplish more on their own. Sometimes openly, more often without admitting it, they follow their own agendas. The science in this post may or may not be useful in persuading them to cooperate, depending on their personal values. But at least the key finding of a 2019 study published in Current Anthropology can provide you as their coach or manager with extra motivation: Cooperation is morally required, by all cultures.

An obvious type of cooperation is helping relatives, but there are many others. Working together for aims that help each individual, tit-for-tat exchanges of help, bravery in support of the group, sharing resources, and respecting property rights are other examples in the journal article. A seventh type it lists requires a little explanation. “Respecting your superiors” may not seem like cooperation. But even within highly democratic work teams, in times of crisis or prolonged disagreement, someone needs to take charge and others need to fall in line to ensure forward movement. This reminded me of a news story about two high school girls who saw that no one was organizing the civilian response to a tornado strike on their town. So they did, and more importantly, the adults just started taking orders!

For the study, University of Oxford anthropologists analyzed data collected by ethnographers on a semi-random sample of 60 societies from every part of the globe. (The “semi” part probably means they randomly selected societies within each region, to ensure a geographic spread.) Many of the societies could be called “indigenous.” For example, the four cultures from the United States were Native American nations in different regions; Europeans were represented by Highland Scots and Serbs.

There was at least 1,200 pages of information on each society. All of that material was searched for mentions of the seven types of cooperation, and then coded as to whether the mentioned type was considered a moral or immoral act. (There was a third option, that the act wasn’t related to morality in that culture.) Amazingly, 99.9% of the 961 mentions of those types considered the cooperative behavior to be morally good. “Most of these… were observed in most societies,” the researchers add.

The study findings did not indicate how important each type was within or across societies. This may matter in your workplace, because conflicts often arise when the priorities or definitions of two moral values clash—inside a work team or between nations. (Or inside my head.) Nonetheless, the scientists were able to conclude, “cooperation is always and everywhere considered moral.”

If nothing else, perhaps knowing your efforts to increase cooperation is “the good fight” will help you keep going.

Source: Curry, Oliver Scott, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse, ‘Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies’, Current Anthropology, 60.1 (2019), 47–69 <>.


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