Everyone benefits when cooperation runs smoothly However, people often act obstructively. Why do they do that? Professor of Social Psychology Carsten de Dreu researches this issue using a wide variety of methods, from brain scans to the role of religion.
Fear of being exploited
From winning a complex war to developing a life-saving drug: there are so many things that can only be achieved if people work together in harmony. They can then achieve impressive performances that also benefit the individual. So, why do colleagues or others so often make things difficult for one another?
Empirical research carried out by De Dreu has shown that greed and fear are the basic reasons underlying problems with teamwork. ‘People are afraid that their contribution will mainly benefit those people who themselves contribute nothing. That’s why people hold back and invest in self-protection rather than cooperation.’
De Dreu examined the strategies people use to maximise the benefits for themselves and to reduce the risk of being exploited. He conducts experiments where the participants can invest in self-protection or attacks on others, or they can choose to do nothing.
When motivated by greed, people seem to invest mainly in self-protection and less in attacks on others. ‘Fear is almost always present as a brake on cooperation, but it’s more difficult to predict when greed will crop up.’ The paradox is that fear among rival groups tends to result in people working better together. ‘It seems to happen almost automatically, often without it even being discussed.’
What does our brain look like?
As Professor of Employment and Organisation Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, De Dreu has conducted a lot of research on cooperation within organisations. In Leiden he intends to approach the subject at a higher level of abstraction. ‘We know a lot about what makes the best kind of leaders. Now I want to examine what our brain looks like when we are working together. I’m interested in that because cooperating with one another relies on very basic systems that we also use for other tasks, such as child-rearing.’
Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone
He intends to use brain scans to look at which neurohormones play a role in cooperation, such as the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin. Is more oxytocin produced when people are working together successfully? And can you influence cooperation by administering a dose of this hormone? ‘This neurobiological approach has only really been used by psychologists in the past five years, and there are a lot of important research questions that have to be answered.’
The effect of religion and rules
De Dreu draws attention to his multidisciplinary approach. He is also interested in the effect of such ‘institutions’ as religion and legislation because these have an obvious influence on our behaviour. He will be working together with fellow scientists from other disciplines: sociologists, political scientists, legal specialists, religious experts and also biologists who will be examining the behaviour of rats, for example.
Managers in the scanner
De Dreu doesn’t exclude the possibility that he will again be conducting some of his research in organisations. Until then he would welcome any managers would be willing to take part in his neurobiological research. ‘I would love it if a lot of managers were willing to have scans while making decisions about their companies. But then they’d have to come in their masses, and that’s not to easy to achieve.’