When last did you co operate without asking questions?

In my own experience, as an executive team member who refused to co operate without asking, I was dismayed by my peers’ bias to co operate blindly. It was partly due to their co operation that unethical practices cascaded into significant malfeasance and ultimately the demise of the company.


Co operation is when we take on costs to help others.  But to help who and why?  Why do we trust people more who co operate without calculating any costs?  For example, we are impressed by colleagues who immediately agree to proofread a paper but view with suspicion those who ask, “how many pages does it have?” Intuitively, those who co operate without “looking” or asking are trusted to co operate even in times when there are large risks involved.

Evolutionary game theory supports the concept of co operation, however this theory focuses only on actions and outcomes and ignores motives.  Co operation without choosing to ask about or look at motives or costs is a sub game perfect equilibrium.

As social animals we care about not only whether others co operate, but, also, their decision-making process: we place more trust in co operators who do not strategically weigh the costs. This speaks to evolutionary dynamics when mostly physical co operation was required in order to survive.   Most of our ancient human ancestors would intuitively ‘feel’ it would be wrong to adopt a rational and conscious strategy of asking about a motive before co operating. This has led to co operation becoming an ideology and being passed on to successive generations.  Indeed, the ‘evolution’ treated by evolutionary game theory should not be just about biological evolution. ‘Evolution’ ought also to be understood as cultural evolution, referring to changes in beliefs and norms over time.  In the preface to Evolution and the Theory of Games, Maynard Smith notes that “[p]aradoxically, it has turned out that game theory is more readily applied to biology than to the field of economic behaviour for which it was originally designed.”

Societies, even now, mostly value intuitive co operation over deliberative co operation, for example extreme physical acts of heroism by an individual/s putting themselves at great physical risk. These co operative decisions are likely to be intuitive, unlike deliberative decisions that are similarly worthwhile and just as risky, like blowing the whistle on malfeasance.  Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Worksidentifies that deliberative decision-makers have slower reaction times and experience increased pupil size and heart rate in addition to sometimes blushing or stammering.

Research suggests that people decide to co operate rapidly if they do not have time to deliberate, as in the individual performing physical heroic acts. The social Heuristics Hypothesis offers one explanation for this: we adopt heuristics to avoid incurring cognitive costs associated with deliberation. In a world with repeated interactions, it is usually worthwhile to co operate, and therefore, individuals may adopt heuristics, such as always co operate or always co operate in social settings or in business settings.

Click on the picture below to watch a 1 min video on why, when we rush towards making a decision, we are more inclined to make mistakes.

Why when we think quickly, we make mistakes


Slow down to consider the following when being requested or expected to co operate:

Consider the distribution of historic payoffs (who benefited, who lost) from your relationship with those looking for further, future co operation;

Consider widening your co operative relationships to include those beyond business-contexts;

Be mindful that we are mostly guided by our principles, making us less sensitive to costs and benefits. Become strategic in this context;

Learn how to ask difficult questions and how to respond accordingly. 

In closing I would say that, whilst I agree that co operation is helpful, supportive and inspiring, this bias is socially sub optimal because the benefits of co operating without looking or asking may accrue to the individuals who advocate them, but the costs are borne by society.

Learn how to have Courageous Conversations to avoid becoming an Accomplice instead of a Co Operator