How guilt fuels cooperation

Over the years I’ve explored cooperation in quite some detail, and especially the factors that influence how and when we choose to cooperate.

For instance, one study wanted to explore the role motivation plays in cooperation.  The researchers developed an ‘envelope game’ to both understand how cooperation evolved and also to explore the motivations of participants.

It emerged that cooperation usually requires a low ‘cost’ for both parties.  Cooperation only generally tends to occur when the cost rises if by defecting, you impart a high cost on the other player.

Or you have a second study that highlights the challenges distributed teams create for cooperation.  They wanted to test how much familiarity impacts cooperation.  The hypothesis being tested was that if antisocial behavior was punished, this would encourage greater levels of cooperation in future.

The role of guilt

A third study wanted to test the role of guilt on cooperation levels.  The research, conducted by the University of Nottingham, reveals that guilt often prompts us to try and repair a situation, thus significantly supporting cooperation, with anger playing the opposite role.

“We all know the term ‘guilt trip’ and understand how it feels. Our study shows that rather than being wholly negative, feelings of guilt can actually be positive and lead to positive behavior and improve cooperation,” the authors say.

The researchers highlight how participants in a scenario based around sharing energy use cooperated more when their individual energy use was made visible via a smart meter.

“The implications of this study are far reaching. If we understand that guilt leads to cooperation we can begin to recognise this and moderate our engagement activities accordingly to improve it. Cooperation is vital to everyday life, from the very small annoyances like not picking up dog mess on the street to the larger political landscape. Recognising that anger can harm cooperation and guilt encourages cooperation could actually lead to a more harmonious society,” the authors continue.

Suffice to say, guilt is perhaps not an emotion we want to encourage in great lengths in the workplace, but it does provide a further glimpse into the kind of conditions that might support cooperative behavior.