Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

library

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

• August 19, 2014 • 7:15 AM

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

If you know that someone knows something that you also know, does that make you more likely to cooperate with them? A new study out of Harvard suggests the answer is yes.

Social psychology has plenty of studies that examine altruism, but there hasn’t been much research that looks into its obscure cousin, “mutualistic cooperation”—that is, when people cooperate to benefit each other and themselves.

“Human cognition may have been shaped by natural selection to solve coordination problems.”

To start rectifying that, a group of researchers, including the popular author Steven Pinker, designed and ran four game theory-type experiments on 1,033 people that involved giving subjects varying levels of information, from private to common—the common knowledge was literally broadcast over a loudspeaker. Each person was then given a set of decisions with varying costs and payoffs, and allowed to choose whether to work by themselves or with others. In many cases, participants needed common knowledge and others’ help to get the games’ maximum benefit. The researchers also manipulated what their subjects knew about their partners’ knowledge.

The resulting study, published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that when people have common knowledge, they’re much likelier to act in each others’ best interest.

“Because it may be costly to engage in a coordinated activity when no one else does so, attempts to coordinate can be risky when it is unclear what other people will do,” the paper explains. “If one protester shows up he gets shot, but if a million show up they may send the dictator packing.”

Knowing that people make decisions differently when there’s information that’s clearly public has a range of implications, varying from the revolutionary, per the example above, to the ordinary. “The acute discomfort in blushing,” the study suggests, “resides largely in the knowledge that the blusher knows he or she is blushing, knows that an onlooker knows it, that the onlooker knows that the blusher knows that the onlooker knows, and so on.”

As one of the researchers, Kyle Thomas, says, “Common knowledge provides a unifying framework to understand a whole lot of otherwise odd and seemingly disconnected phenomena in human social life.” According to Thomas, people often either try to create common knowledge for a specific aim, like “using Twitter to incite protests in Egypt,” or to avoid it, as when a family doesn’t discuss “‘the elephant in the room’ like the problematic drunk uncle that no one wants to confront.”

The inherent value of people having access to the same information probably has evolutionary roots. As the researchers theorize in the paper: “Human cognition may have been shaped by natural selection to solve coordination problems. If game theorists are correct that common knowledge is needed for coordination, then humans might have cognitive mechanisms for recognizing it.”


Rosie Spinks contributed reporting. 

Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews writes about thought leaders, environmental issues, food, and travel. She also reports for Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @avitalb.

More From Avital Andrews

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.