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Are We Programmed to Cooperate?

Are you familiar with the prisoner dilemma scenario? You and another person are "suspects" who are separated and each must choose to either inform on the other suspect or keep your mouth shut. The consequences of your decision are as follows:

  1. If only one of you rats out the other, that person gets set free and the other guy gets 6 months.

  2. If you both decide to rat on each other, you each get 3 months.

  3. If you both keep your mouth shut, you both get 1 month.

You have no way of knowing what the other guy's going to do. What do you decide? From watching episodes of Law & Order, i know that the best thing for all parties is to keep your damn pie hole shut, despite the seemingly good return on being the first to spill the beans. And it seems like our genes feel the same way.

Evolution does not favour selfish people, according to new research.

This challenges a previous theory which suggested it was preferable to put yourself first.


Published in Nature Communications, the team says their work shows that exhibiting only selfish traits would have made us become extinct.

"You might think that natural selection should favour individuals that are exploitative and selfish, but in fact we now know after decades of research that this is an oversimplified view of things, particularly if you take into account the selfish gene feature of evolution.

"It's not individuals that have to survive, its genes, and genes just use individual organisms - animals or humans - as vehicles to propagate themselves."

"Selfish genes" therefore benefit from having co-operative organisms.

Now, here's where the possible programming to make us more likely to cooperate comes in.

[R]esearchers, who looked at a large sample of people over a month-long period, found that happiness is associated with selfish "taking" behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless "giving" behavior.

"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors of the study wrote. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need." While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. As Roy Baumeister, one of the researchers, told me, "Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy."


"For our ancestors, loneliness and adversity were associated with bacterial infections from wounds with predators and fights with conspecifics." On the other hand, if you are doing well and having a lot of healthy social connections, your immune system shifts forward to prepare you for viruses, which you're more likely to contract if you're interacting with a lot of people.

Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives -- proverbially, simply here for the party -- have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.

People whose levels of happiness and meaning line up, and people who have a strong sense of meaning but are not necessarily happy, showed a deactivation of the adversity stress response. Their bodies were not preparing them for the bacterial infections that we get when we are alone or in trouble, but for the viral infections we get when surrounded by a lot of other people.

According to the first article, cooperating ensured our genes surviving. Did our genes basically make it more likely that we'd choose to cooperate and help others by making us feel physically better if we did? And poorly if we chose to be selfish, triggering a response in our bodies as if we were "enduring chronic adversity", as noted in the second article?

Looking at our modern society, i believe the threat of heart disease, cancer, and depression is no longer an effective deterrent to being selfish, not in the face of immediate, euphoric gratification.

When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don't see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy...They think that they're smart, and that the rest of us are dumb.
-- Yossarian, Catch-22

By min | August 2, 2013, 3:24 PM | Science