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Summary Article: Cooperation and Competition from Encyclopedia of Human Relationships

Cooperation and competition are basic properties of human social life. Whenever an individual interacts with relatives, friends, intimate partners, or business associates, their relationship will normally contain a mixture of cooperative and competitive elements (i.e., mixed-motive interactions). On the one hand, people take pleasure and pride in collaborating with others to achieve mutual goals such as raising children, creating a successful business, or winning a sports match. On the other hand, people often compete with each other to get credits for joint achievements. Cooperation can be broadly defined as a motivation to further joint interests (e.g., doing well together), whereas competition concerns a motivation to maximize personal interests relative to that of others (e.g., doing better than others). Cooperation and competition can be thought of as two contrasting motivational or behavioral strategies employed in situations in which people's outcomes are mutually dependent. They also sometimes refer to the relationship itself. For instance, a cooperative relationship is characterized by a positive correspondence between people's outcomes (win-win relationship), whereas a competitive relationship is characterized by negative correspondence in outcomes (win-lose relationship). This entry investigates the origins of human cooperation and competition and some factors that promote cooperation in social relationships, based on the latest research findings in psychology and adjacent disciplines.

Issues of cooperation and competition have been of interest to behavioral scientists across many disciplines, such as in psychology, economics, biology, political science, and sociology. Researchers often use experimental game methodology to test their hypotheses. Arguably the best-known game is the Prisoner's Dilemma (PDG), a classic example of a social dilemma that pits individual against collective interests. The PDG was developed by scientists in the 1950s. The cover story for the game involved two suspects accused of committing a crime together who are independently offered the choice to testify against each other or to keep silent. The payoffs are such that each one is better off testifying against the other (the competitive or noncooperative choice), but if they both pursue this strategy, they are both worse off than by remaining silent (the cooperative choice). Thus, their best individual strategy results in a deficient collective outcome.


Historically, the dominant theory to explain cooperation and competition is (economic) game theory, which provides the logic behind experimental games and assumes that individuals are rational actors who are motivated to maximize their self-interest. Game theory predicts that players will compete in a PDG (or an equivalent game) because this, on average, gives them the best payoffs. Although this is a useful starting premise, there are many conditions under which people may deviate from narrow self-interest. As such, complementary frameworks are needed to understand broader interpersonal motives and mechanisms.

Evolutionary and social psychological approaches provide useful, complementary insights into why people cooperate versus compete. The selfish gene perspective suggests that people are motivated to cooperate if it furthers the survival of their genes. For example, Kin Selection Theory assumes that people are more inclined to share with close kin because of overlapping genetic interests. There is considerable evidence in support of this evolutionary theory; for instance, people are more willing to share food or money with siblings (50 percent genetic relatedness) than with cousins (12.5 percent). Reciprocal Altruism Theory provides an alternative explanation for the evolution of cooperation. When people interact repeatedly with the same person, cooperation can develop because players can reward each other for cooperation and punish each other for competition (the tit for tat strategy). What about cooperation in larger groups? There are various promising evolutionary models of large-scale cooperation being developed at the moment, such as Indirect Reciprocity Theory—the idea that people cooperate so as to earn a positive reputation—and Multilevel Selection Theory—the idea that groups of coop-erators have an evolutionary advantage. Yet these models wait further testing.

Psychological theories of cooperation also question the game theory assumption that individuals are inclined to compete in mixed-motive social interactions. The most prominent is Interdependence Theory, which suggests that different people interpret a particular situation differently under the influence of particular social motives, social norms, or aspects of the decision situation. Playing a prisoner's dilemma with an identical twin, for instance, changes the PDG into a game in which cooperation is considered the most attractive strategy. Also, players with cooperative dispositions attach greater weight to a cooperative outcome, thus transforming the game into one in which cooperation is rational. What are the factors that might lead to such transformations that promote cooperation? Generally, there are motivational, strategic, and structural factors.

Motivational Factors

There is overwhelming evidence for stable individual differences in how much people value certain ways of distributing outcomes between themselves and others. The literature distinguishes among three primary social orientations: (1) cooperation—maximizing joint outcomes (doing well together), (2) individualism—maximizing own outcomes regardless of what others get (doing best for oneself), and (3) competition—maximizing own outcomes relative to others (doing better than the other). Findings reveal that most people have a cooperative orientation, which has implications for the way they behave in social settings. For instance, they are more willing to sacrifice in an intimate relationship, do volunteer work, donate money to a charity, and save the environment. They also weigh the moral implications of their decisions more heavily and perceive cooperation as the more intelligent choice. One interesting puzzle is where these individual differences come from. There are some indications that cooperators are more likely to grow up in larger families (with sibling sisters, in particular), and they are more prevalent in East Asian than in Western cultures and among women than men, and apparently, they are less prevalent among economics than psychology students. Like any other personality variable, these orientations are presumably the product of a complex interaction between genetic and cultural factors. Examples of other personality traits that have been found to increase cooperation are trust, collectivism, egalitarian values, and a secure attachment style.

A second motivational force in cooperation is people's social identifications. For example, when people highly identify with a particular social group (such as a sports team or social movement), they are more likely to contribute to their group and trust that other ingroup members will do so as well. Social identifications have an even more powerful effect in case of intergroup competition. When social dilemmas involve two groups of players, there is much less cooperation between them than when two individuals play. However, inter-group competition also drives intragroup cooperation, especially among men, and competition within groups is much less severe in the presence of an outgroup. Yet intergroup competition can be a double-edged sword. Encouraging competition between groups might serve the temporary needs of ingroup members, but the social costs of inter-group competition (e.g., prejudice, aggression, violence) can be severe for all involved parties.

There is also evidence that social norms can play an important role in eliciting cooperation in society. Norm violation can result in social disapproval or even ostracism, which are powerful incentives to cooperate. Social norms also facilitate cooperation through protecting the weak in society from being exploited (such as norms about charity and rules about taxes and social security), and these norms create a sense of justice and fairness in society. It is noteworthy that people are concerned not only about fairness in the outcomes they receive (distributive justice) but also about the fairness in the procedures producing these outcomes (procedural justice). For instance, cooperation with authorities is much higher when people feel they have been listened to and treated with dignity and respect.

A final factor is communication. Cooperation generally increases when players are allowed to communicate. There are several reasons for this. Communication fosters a shared identity between individuals so that they are more concerned about each other's fate. It also offers an opportunity for people to persuade each other to do what is morally right. Finally, communication gives people a chance to make promises and explicit commitments about what they will do.

Strategic Factors

As previously mentioned, communication can have a strategic benefit, as it allows people to make commitments. Furthermore, particularly in repeated interactions between the same players, cooperation can stabilize on the back of a strategy called tit for tat. This strategy commences with a cooperative choice and subsequently imitates the other person's previous choice. Thus, if one partner competes, the other copies the move until the partner starts to cooperate. Tit for tat is one of the most effective means for eliciting stable patters of mutual cooperation in all kinds of social interactions, for instance, between romantic partners, friends, business partners, and even between nations. It works well because it is nice, but firm. Yet it can be quite an unforgiving strategy, and a more forgiving strategy that does not involve immediate retaliation sometimes produces better results—for instance, in real life, people sometimes accidentally make a noncooperative decision.

Another strategic variable concerns a person's reputation. In environments in which people can freely choose social interaction partners, it may pay for someone to develop a positive reputation through consistent levels of cooperation. Research suggests that in such environments cooperators may be better off in the long run because they are selectively favored for social exchanges from which competitors are excluded. There is even some evidence that cooperators are selectively preferred as partners for intimate relationships. Perhaps the most common manifestations of reputational cooperation are public charitable displays such as philanthropic giving or bystander helping, which usually attract large audiences.

Structural Factors

Cooperation is enhanced when there is greater correspondence in outcomes between interaction partners. Thus, interventions by which cooperation becomes structurally more attractive (reward) and competition less attractive (punishment) are instrumental in inducing cooperation. A successful example from the real world is the so-called Jigsaw class room in which students of mixed ethnicity work together in small groups on a variety of tasks in which their individual contribution is recognized rather than compete. Such cooperative activities improve educational levels and reduce intergroup prejudices. Rewards may not always be effective because they sometimes undermine people's intrinsic motivation to cooperate. Some people get a warm glow from cooperating and the provision of selective incentives might crowd out their prosocial motivations. Similarly, punishment strategies might erode people's trust in each other and backfire.

Another structural feature involves people's dependence on a relationship. In ongoing social relationships, cooperation is enhanced to the extent that people experience greater commitment to the relationship, that is, when they feel more strongly attached to the relationship and at the same time, perceive a lack of viable alternatives. Commitment is important for social cooperation in romantic relationships, friendship groups, and even in large formal organizations. For instance, people are more willing to engage in organizational citizenship activities such as organizing an office party when they feel committed to the organization that employs them.

A final structural feature is group size. Cooperation is generally higher in smaller groups. In larger groups, people may feel less personal responsibility for the collective interest and perhaps rightly believe that their cooperative contributions makes little overall impact (personal efficacy). Even so, cooperation in large groups is possible, particularly through enhancing feelings of group identity, effective communication, and strengthening social norms. Alternatively, punishment strategies might be quite effective in fostering cooperation in larger groups.


Cooperation and competition are vital themes in human affairs. As emerging research themes, scientists are developing novel games to study cooperation and competition, for instance, using games in which (a) participants can enter or leave, (b) be included or excluded, and (c) play multiple games either sequentially or simultaneously. There is also blooming neuroscience literature studying brain correlates associated with cooperation and competition, reward and punishment, and violation of social norms. Finally, there is an enhanced interest in applications to areas such as close relationships, organizational welfare, education, public health, national security, and international relations.

See also

Commitment, Predictors and Outcomes, Commitment, Theories and Typologies, Evolutionary Psychology and Human Relationships, Interdependence Theory, Justice Norms Applied to Relationships, Social Exchange Theory, Social Identity Theory, Trust

Further Readings
  • Axelrod, R. A. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
  • Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct. In Zanna, M.(Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 24; pp. 201-234). New York: Academic Press.
  • Deutsch, M. A theory of cooperation and competition. Human Relations 2 : 129-152., 1949.
  • Kelley, H. H., & Thibaut, J. W. (1978). Interpersonal relations: A theory of interdependence. New York: Wiley.
  • Komorita, S. S.; Parks, C. D. Interpersonal relations: A mixed motive interaction. Annual Review of Psychology 46 : 183-207., 1995.
  • Van Lange, P. A. M.; Otten, W.; De Bruin, E. M. N.; Joireman, J. A. Development of prosocial, individualistic, and competitive orientations: Theory and preliminary evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73 : 733-746., 1997.
  • Van Lange, P. A. M.; Rusbult, C. E.; Drigotas, S. M.; Arriaga, X. B.; Witcher, B. S.; Cox, C. L. Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 : 1373-1395., 1997.
  • Van Vugt, M.; De Cremer, D.; Janssen, D. Gender differences in cooperation and competition: The male warrior hypothesis. Psychological Science 18 : 19-23., 2007.
  • Van Vugt, M., & Van Lange, P. (2006). Psychological adaptations for prosocial behaviour: The altruism puzzle. In Schaller, M., Simpson, J., & Kenrick, D.(Eds.), Evolution and social psychology (pp. 237-261). New York: Psychology Press.
  • Van Vugt, Mark
    Van Lange, Paul A. M.
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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