Why people act for the common good

Professor identifies traits that underlie human cooperation

Social interactions depend on fairness and equity, but much of the world works because people are willing to give time, money, or other support for little or nothing in return. Citizens approve bond issues for schools and playgrounds they’ll never use. They donate to radio stations they don’t listen to and people they’ll never meet. They volunteer to fight and die in wars.

In the WSU Department of Psychology, Professor Craig Parks has deciphered the social and psychological calculus behind caring and cooperation, distilling some common traits among public goods that succeed while others fail. He and his colleagues incorporated more than a dozen hypotheses of human cooperation into a model that can weigh factors like human values, available resources, and cultural norms. It is complex, but it does yield several important variables that incline people to cooperate for the common good.

A feeling of group identity helps, as does trust. But sacrifices for the sake of future generations can be problematic, as people doubt the long-term effectiveness of their actions and whether they’ll be appreciated.

Parks suggests looking back to the sacrifices that others made decades ago for benefits we enjoy now. So while we are unlikely to personally meet someone in 2100 and get their thanks for combatting global warming, we can appreciate the efforts of people who fought in the last century’s World Wars. They left a legacy, and thoughts of our own legacy can stimulate efforts on behalf of the distant future.

Societies will always face large challenges that strain individuals’ ability to give. The burden will rarely be equally shared, but Parks’ work can point the way to responses that are more selfless, effective and sustainable.