Fear makes us co-operate

Teamwork25 April 2012

By Neil Baker

Why do we co-operate with others? Conventional wisdom says it is not only for practical benefits, but also for the emotional reward of feeling good. But the real motivation might be fear, according to new research. We might be inclined to work together because we are worried about the consequences of selfishly taking advantage of other people.

Researchers took pairs of volunteers, put them each into separate rooms, and asked them to play a simple game. They pressed one of two buttons on a computer, and if they chose the same button as their partner in the other room, they would both win a reward. If they chose different buttons, neither of them would get anything. After each go, a screen showed them what button their partner had pressed.

After a few rounds the partners worked out a way of co-operating and would choose the same button each time. But the researchers then offered one participant an opportunity to cheat on their partner: they would win a much higher reward – and their partner nothing – if they broke the pattern and stopped cooperating. In 50 per cent of cases they took the offer.

The partners who were given the 'cheat's choice' were doing their button-pushing inside a brain scanner. This allowed the researchers to see which parts of the participants’ brains were active when they made their decision to cheat or not.

The results were surprising, says lead researcher Professor Timothy Hodgson, from the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln. "The scans showed activity in the brain’s reward centres, which is what we expected," he says, "but we also saw a response in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with emotional responses, especially fear."

Brain scans need to be read with caution, says Professor Hodgson. "But the data could show us a measure of the extent to which participants worried about the consequences when we offered them a chance to cheat their partners."

The amygdala was particularly active in participants who had taken longer than normal to find a way of co-operating with their partners. “That would be consistent with a version of the fear story,” says Professor Hodgson. “These participants would naturally worry more about breaking the understanding with their partner because it had taken them more time to establish it.”

It wasn't a formal part of the study, but the professor also noticed that participants who had accidentally met beforehand – because they’d bumped into each other at reception – were less likely to cheat on the other player. "The increased confidence that their decisions would have consequences for a real fellow human seemed to affect their behaviour," says Professor Hodgson.

The research, he believes, offers a fascinating insight into the emotional glue that holds societies together, and the role emotional incentives play in habit formation and behavioural change. This could eventually lead to better policy on health and social issues.

"It may be true that 'old habits die hard'," he says, "but our research suggests that even newly acquired social habits can be more difficult to disrupt by changing individual incentives than has been previously assumed."