Cooperation or co-operation is the process of working or acting together. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side, while in its more complicated forms, it can involve something as complex as the inner workings of a human being or even the social patterns of a nation. It is the alternative to working separately in competition. Cooperation can also be accomplished by computers, which can handle shared resources simultaneously, while sharing processor time.

Cooperative systems

Cooperation is the process by which the components of a system work together to achieve the global properties. In other words, individual components that appear to be “selfish” and independent work together to create a highly complex, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts system. Examples can be found all around us. The components in a cell work together to keep it living. Cells work together and communicate to produce multicellular organisms. Organisms form food chains and ecosystems. People form families, tribes, cities and nations. Atoms cooperate in a simple way, by combining to make up molecules. Understanding the mechanisms that create cooperating agents in a system is one of the most important and least well understood phenomena in nature, though there has not been a lack of effort.

Individual action on behalf of a larger system may be coerced (forced), voluntary (freely chosen), or even unintentional, and consequently individuals and groups might act in concert even though they have almost nothing in common as regards interests or goals. Examples of that can be found in market trade, military wars, families, workplaces, schools and prisons, and more generally any institution or organization of which individuals are part (out of own choice, by law, or forced).

The Prisoner's Dilemma

Even if all members of a group would benefit if all cooperate, individual self-interest may not favor cooperation. The prisoner's dilemma
Prisoner's dilemma
The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game, analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W...

 codifies this problem and has been the subject of much research, both theoretical and experimental. Results from experimental economics
Experimental economics
Experimental economics is the application of experimental methods to study economic questions. Data collected in experiments are used to estimate effect size, test the validity of economic theories, and illuminate market mechanisms. Economic experiments usually use cash to motivate subjects, in...

 show that humans often act more cooperatively than strict self-interest would seem to dictate. While economic experiments require subjects to make relatively abstract decisions for small stakes, evidence from natural experiments for high stakes support the claim that humans act more cooperatively than strict self-interest would dictate.

One reason may be that if the prisoner's dilemma situation is repeated (the iterated prisoner's dilemma), it allows non-cooperation to be punished more, and cooperation to be rewarded more, than the single-shot version of the problem would suggest. It has been suggested that this is one reason for the evolution of complex emotion
Emotion is a complex psychophysiological experience of an individual's state of mind as interacting with biochemical and environmental influences. In humans, emotion fundamentally involves "physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience." Emotion is associated with mood,...

s in higher life forms, who, at least as infants, and usually thereafter, cannot survive without cooperating – although with maturation they gain much more choice about the kinds of cooperation they wish to have.

There are four main conditions that tend to be necessary for cooperative behaviour to develop between two individuals :
  • An overlap in desires
  • A chance of future encounters with the same individual
  • Memory of past encounters with that individual
  • A value associated with future outcomes

Cooperation in Humans

Roots of human cooperation may be found in empathy. For example, when several infants are in a room, and one of them starts crying, others start crying too.

Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

 allows humans to cooperate on a very large scale. Certain studies have shown that fairness affects human cooperation; individuals are willing to punish at their own cost (altruistic punishment) if they believe that they are being treated unfair. Sanfey, et al. conducted an experiment where 19 individuals were scanned using MRI while playing an Ultimatum Game
Ultimatum game
The ultimatum game is a game often played in economic experiments in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. ...

 in the role of the responder. They were receiving offers from other human partners and from a computer partner. Remarkably, responders refused unfair offers from human partners at a significantly higher rate than those by a computer partner. The experiment also showed that altruistic punishment is associated with negative emotions that are being generated in unfair situations by the anterior insula
Insular cortex
In each hemisphere of the mammalian brain the insular cortex is a portion of the cerebral cortex folded deep within the lateral sulcus between the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe. The cortical area overlying it towards the lateral surface of the brain is the operculum...

 of the brain.

It has been observed that image scoring promotes cooperative behavior in situations where direct reciprocity is unlikely. In situations where reputation and status are involved, humans tend to cooperate more.

Cooperation in Animals

Animals show a significant level of cooperation. Elephants, wolves, bees, wasps, etc. are highly cooperative. Cooperation in certain species (e.g. ants) is regulated by chemicals. Some insects are (arguably) more cooperative than humans, for example wasps. That could be explained by high relatedness between members of the hive.
One of the first examples of Tit for tat
Tit for tat
Tit for tat is an English saying meaning "equivalent retaliation". It is also a highly effective strategy in game theory for the iterated prisoner's dilemma. It was first introduced by Anatol Rapoport in Robert Axelrod's two tournaments, held around 1980. An agent using this strategy will initially...

 cooperation strategy in animals was observed in the behavior of sticklebacks by Manfred Milinski. When sticklebacks see that their partner is cooperating, they reciprocate.

While altruistic punishment is characteristic for humans, certain experiments show that animals also punish (at no cost) in unfair situations. In repeated interactions chimpanzees do not cooperate with one another if the product of cooperation is not shared.

Image scoring promotes cooperation in cleaner fish
Cleaner fish
Cleaner fish are fish that provide a service to other fish species by removing dead skin and ectoparasites. This is an example of mutualism, an ecological interaction that benefits both parties involved. A wide variety of fishes have been observed to display cleaning behaviors including wrasses,...

. Defecting is more rare when the cleaner fish know that they are being watched by a bystander, a client fish who collects information in order to decide whose services to accept. Cleaner fish tend to cooperate more conscientiously with smaller client fish in order to gain reputation and get access to a bigger fish.

See also

  • Collaboration
    Collaboration is working together to achieve a goal. It is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, — for example, an intriguing endeavor that is creative in nature—by sharing...

  • Game theory
    Game theory
    Game theory is a mathematical method for analyzing calculated circumstances, such as in games, where a person’s success is based upon the choices of others...

  • Management cybernetics
    Management cybernetics
    Management cybernetics is the field of cybernetics concerned with management and organizations. The notion of cybernetics and management was first introduced by Stafford Beer in the late 1950s-Cybernetics and Complexity:...

  • Polytely
    Polytely can be described as frequently, complex problem-solving situations characterized by the presence of not one, but several goals, endings.Modern societies face an increasing incidence of various complex problems...

  • Teamwork
    Teamwork is action performed by a team towards a common goal. A team consists of more than one person, each of whom typically has different responsibilities....

  • Dunbar's number
    Dunbar's number
    Dunbar's number is suggested to be a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person...

External links

  •, The Cooperation Project: Objectives, Accomplishments, and Proposals. Howard Rheingold's project with Institute for the Future
    Institute for the Future
    The Institute for the Future is a Palo Alto, California–based think tank established in 1968, as a spin-off from the RAND Corporation, to help organizations plan for the long-term future....

  •, Cooperation platform for transport research (scientific)
  •, The Far Games, a list of games using theatrical improvisation to encourage collaboration and distributed leadership
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