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Empathy and cooperation go hand in hand

It’s a big part of what makes us human: we cooperate. But humans aren’t saints. Most of us are more likely to help someone we consider good than someone we consider a jerk.

How we form these moral assessments of others has a lot to do with cultural and social norms, as well as our capacity for empathy – the extent to which we can take on the perspective of another person.

What the researchers say

In a new analysis, researchers investigated cooperation from an evolutionary perspective. Using game-theory-driven models, they showed that a capacity for empathy fosters cooperation, according to the senior author. The models also show that the extent to which empathy promotes cooperation depends on a given society’s system for moral evaluation.

“Having not just the capacity but the willingness to take into account someone else’s perspective when forming moral judgments tends to promote cooperation,” he said.

What’s more, the group’s analysis points to a heartening conclusion. All else being equal, empathy tends to spread throughout a population under most scenarios.

“We asked, ‘can empathy evolve?’” the study’s lead researcher explained. “What if individuals start copying the empathetic way of observing each others’ interactions? We saw that empathy soared through the population.”

Many scientists have probed the question of why individuals cooperate through indirect reciprocity, a scenario in which one person helps another not because of a direct quid pro quo but because they know that person to be “good”. But the present group gave the study a nuance that others had not explored. Whereas other studies have assumed that whether a person is morally “good” or “bad” are universally known, these researchers realized this did not realistically describe human society, where individuals may differ in their opinion of others’ reputations.

“In large, modern societies, people disagree a lot about each others’ moral reputations,” said the lead author.

The researchers incorporated this variation in opinions into their models, which imagine someone choosing either to assist or not to assist a second person based on that individual’s reputation. The researchers found that cooperation was less likely to be sustained when people disagree about each others’ reputations – the situation in most modern societies.

That’s when they decided to incorporate empathy, or theory of mind, which, in the context of the study, entails the ability to understand the perspective of another person. Doing so allowed cooperation to win out over more selfish strategies.

“It makes a lot of sense,” the lead researcher said. “If I don’t account for your point of view, there will be many occasions when I judge you harshly when I really shouldn’t because, from your perspective, you were doing the right thing.”

To further explore the impact of empathy on cooperation, the researchers looked at a variety of frameworks, or social norms, that people might use to assign a reputation to another person based on their behavior. For example, most frameworks label someone “good” if they reward a fellow “good” individual, but social norms differ in how they judge interactions with a person deemed bad. While what’s called a “stern judging” norm labels “good” anyone who punishes a bad actor, the “simple standing” norm does not require this punitive approach: A “good” person can reward a bad one.

The researchers discovered again that capacity for empathy mattered. When populations were empathetic, stern judging was the best at promoting cooperation. But when a group was less willing to take on the perspective of another, other norms maximized rates of cooperation.

This result prompted the team to ask another evolutionary question – whether empathy itself can evolve and become stable in a population. And under most scenarios, the answer was yes.

“Starting with a population where no one is empathetic, with people judging each other based on their own perspective, we saw that eventually individuals will copy the behavior of those who judge empathetically,” said the researchers. “Empathy will spread, and cooperation can emerge.”

So, what?

We’re living in a time of lessening empathy. Groups are marginalizing other groups, and difference rather than commonality is being emphasized. I sincerely hope that these researchers are right, but I have my doubts. Too many “bad” people stand to gain too much from division rather than unity, from envy rather than empathy, from promoting non-collaboration rather than cooperation.

There have been many studies that have shown that collaboration – at least with those with whom we share values, ideas, beliefs and ethical concepts (core commonalities) – is part of our DNA. But this is limited, and we resist collaboration with those whose worldview we don’t share. We also tend not to collaborate with people who “seem different,” even when that difference – such as race or ethnicity – is scientifically slight or meaningless.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain