Focusing on the success of others can make us selfish

16 Feb 2015 20:01:00.000

PA 26/15

It is believed that the success of humans as a species depends to a large extent on our ability to cooperate in groups. Much more so than any other ape (or mammal for that matter), people are able to work together and coordinate their actions to produce mutual benefits. But what do we base our decisions on when we know whatever we do will affect those around us?

New research involving Dr Lucas Molleman, an expert in decision making and human cooperation in the School of Economics at The University of Nottingham, suggests that successful cooperation in groups depends on how people gather information about their peers, and how they base their cooperative decisions on it. The broader implication of this research is that the type of information we use to make our decisions can affect our social decision making.

The research, conducted at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, is published today, Monday February 16 2015, in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

Click here for full story

Cooperation is of interest to both the natural and social sciences. Biologists wonder how cooperation could have evolved by natural selection: it is puzzling how cooperation can be beneficial when it is possible to behave selfishly and take advantage of the cooperative efforts of your group. Psychologists and economists try to understand why many people are willing to sacrifice their own welfare to benefit their social environment.

Understanding the decision making process

Dr Molleman, from the Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics, said: “The question that our research tries to answer is: 'How do people make decisions when their actions can affect the welfare of others?' More specifically, we want to know how people determine their behaviour when they have to cooperate in groups.”

In these situations, a beneficial outcome for the whole group can be achieved if everyone works together. Individually, however, people might be better off by making selfish choices. Because of the possibility of others taking a free ride, people pay close attention their fellow group mates when they make decisions. For instance, they cooperate if others also cooperate, but act selfishly when others do not cooperate.

Who is selfish and who isn’t?

Two hundred participants were invited to a computer lab at the University of Groningen. They were asked to make decisions that affected their earnings. Groups were formed in which the participants could choose between a selfish option (increasing their own earnings) and an option that benefitted all members of their group. In between making their decisions, people could gather information about their fellow group members; about the choices of the majority and information about which option paid off best.

Dr Pieter Van Den Berg from the University of Groningen said: “From previous research we know that people differ quite strongly in what kind of information they are interested in: some people are 'majority-oriented' and tend to look at the behaviour of the majority in their group, whereas others are 'success-oriented' and try to find out what kind of behaviour pays off best. In this experiment we studied how these different types of people behave when they have to cooperate in groups.”

Dr Molleman said: “It turns out that behaviour in groups of success-oriented people was much more selfish than groups of majority-oriented people. As a consequence, the people in the majority-oriented groups tended to earn more money in the experiment since they cooperated more.

— Ends —

Our academics can now be interviewed for broadcast via our Media Hub, which offers a Globelynx fixed camera and ISDN line facilities at University Park campus. For further information please contact a member of the Communications team on +44 (0)115 951 5798, email or see the Globelynx website for how to register for this service.

For up to the minute media alerts, follow us on Twitter

Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers, in the top 10 for student experience according to the Times Higher Education and winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the THE Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top one per cent of universities by the QS World University Rankings, and 8th in the UK by research power according to REF 2014.

The University of Nottingham in Malaysia (UNMC) is holding events throughout 2015 to celebrate 15 years as a pioneer of transnational education. Based in Semenyih, UMNC was established as the UK's first overseas campus in Malaysia and one of the first world-wide.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Lucas Molleman in the School of Economics, The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 846 8088,; or Pieter van den Berg at Theoretical Biology, University of Groningen, on +31 (0)50 363 8094,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

Additional resources

No additional resources for this article

Related articles

Escalation threatens strike resolution, say researchers

Published Date
Wednesday 21st September 2011

The truth about bonuses

Published Date
Monday 14th February 2011

Media Relations - External Relations

The University of Nottingham
YANG Fujia Building
Jubilee Campus
Wollaton Road
Nottingham, NG8 1BB

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5798