Spontaneous giving and calculated greed

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Cooperation is central to human social behaviour1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. However, choosing to cooperate requires individuals to incur a personal cost to benefit others. Here we explore the cognitive basis of cooperative decision-making in humans using a dual-process framework10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18. We ask whether people are predisposed towards selfishness, behaving cooperatively only through active self-control; or whether they are intuitively cooperative, with reflection and prospective reasoning favouring ‘rational’ self-interest. To investigate this issue, we perform ten studies using economic games. We find that across a range of experimental designs, subjects who reach their decisions more quickly are more cooperative. Furthermore, forcing subjects to decide quickly increases contributions, whereas instructing them to reflect and forcing them to decide slowly decreases contributions. Finally, an induction that primes subjects to trust their intuitions increases contributions compared with an induction that promotes greater reflection. To explain these results, we propose that cooperation is intuitive because cooperative heuristics are developed in daily life where cooperation is typically advantageous. We then validate predictions generated by this proposed mechanism. Our results provide convergent evidence that intuition supports cooperation in social dilemmas, and that reflection can undermine these cooperative impulses.

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Figure 1: Faster decisions are more cooperative.
Figure 2: Inducing intuitive thinking promotes cooperation.
Figure 3: Evidence that cooperative intuitions from daily lift spill over into the laboratory.


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We thank H. Ahlblad, O. Amir, F. Fu, O. Hauser, J. Horton and R. Kane for assistance with carrying out the experiments, and P. Blake, S. Bowles, N. Christakis, F. Cushman, A. Dreber, T. Ellingsen, F. Fu, D. Fudenberg, O. Hauser, J. Jordan, M. Johannesson, M. Manapat, J. Paxton, A. Peysakhovich, A. Shenhav, J. Sirlin-Rand, M. van Veelen and O. Wurzbacher for discussion and comments. This work was supported in part by a National Science Foundation grant (SES-0821978 to J.D.G.). D.G.R. and M.A.N. are supported by grants from the John Templeton Foundation.

Author information

D.G.R., J.D.G. and M.A.N. designed the experiments, D.G.R. carried out the experiments and statistical analyses, and D.G.R., J.D.G. and M.A.N. wrote the paper.

Correspondence to David G. Rand.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Text 1-15, Supplementary Figures 1-3, Supplementary Tables 1-18 and additional references (See page 1 for details). (PDF 1622 kb)

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Rand, D., Greene, J. & Nowak, M. Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature 489, 427–430 (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11467

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