Category: Teams

What I don’t hear can’t hurt me: insecure managers avoid input from employees

Organisations do better when there are clear communication channels that allow staff to point out ways the company can improve. Similarly, teams who freely share ideas and concerns are more tight-knit and motivated. And their managers get enhanced awareness, and to share in the praise for any improvements that pay off. So encouraging employee voice should be a no-brainer, especially for any manager feeling unsure of their ability to deliver solo. Yet according to new research, these insecure managers are the ones least likely to listen and act on staff input.

Nathanael Fast and colleagues began with a survey of 41 managers and their 148 staff within a multinational oil company. Managers who rated themselves lower on managerial self-confidence (e.g. they disagreed with statements like “I am confident that I can perform effectively on many different tasks”) tended to have staff who were less likely to speak out, stating that they perceived their manager did not encourage it. Why? A follow-up experiment aimed to find out.

One hundred and thirty-one employed participants (84 women) read an imaginary scenario in which they were the manager of an airline that was receiving a rise in customer complaints. The scenario then described a meeting where the participant began announcing a solution. But before they had finished, an employee – a maintenance chief named Spencer – offered an alternative he argued was better for the airline in the long-term.

The researchers found that whether participants heeded Spencer’s advice depended on their confidence, which was manipulated at the start of the scenario. Some participants were told that they were performing impressively, others were told that people were questioning their competence. Those in the latter condition expressed lower faith in the maintenance officer’s expertise and showed less willingness to either implement his proposal or to seek help in the future from him or his colleagues.

The underlying cause appears to be the existential threat posed to low-confidence managers by these employee ideas. As people are loath to admit to such insecurities, the researchers didn’t directly measure them. Instead, they showed they could cancel the effect of low confidence by asking participants to complete a positive affirmation: a short writing exercise reminding themselves of their other positive qualities, As this intervention worked, it suggests that the root cause of managers’ ignoring staff advice was related to their own defensiveness and desire to protect their managerial status.

Accepting unsolicited feedback can be challenging for anyone. But “The Manager” is by definition on top of things, so gaps in awareness can be particularly threatening for people in that role. Self-confidence makes it easier to take that medicine, and enjoy its benefits in the long-term. But those anxious about their capability may be afraid of being unmasked, and turn away from sources of insight, at their own cost.

Here we see how the harms caused by self-doubt can spill over into a wider climate. Organisations could help new managers put aside unrealistic expectations of their need to be omniscient, and to recognise the benefits of putting the entire team brain to work. After all, better to have the Spencers of this world on your side than against you.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Fast, N., Burris, E., & Bartel, C. (2014). Managing to Stay in the Dark: Managerial Self-Efficacy, Ego Defensiveness, and the Aversion to Employee Voice Academy of Management Journal, 57 (4), 1013-1034 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0393

–further reading–
Self doubt turns bosses into bullies

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Why your team should appoint a "meta-knowledge" champion – one person who’s aware of everyone else’s area of expertise

Being on top of “who knows what” is crucial for any team. If I were scheduled to meet a new client from an unfamiliar industry, it would be handy to know that my office-mate had worked in that area for years and could offer me some tips. But how is this team meta-knowledge (knowledge of who knows what) best handled? New research suggests teams, especially those composed of specialists, gain an advantage when they concentrate this information in the hands of one person instead of spreading it thinly.

Julija Mell and her collaborators asked 112 teams, each comprising three students, to rank the commercial prospects of five different drink products from best to worst. Each member read some unique information themed by specialism: for example, one it was research and development (R&D) data about the five products; for another, information about legal and marketing aspects. The task had an ideal answer, and good performance required seeing interdependencies – for example, a chemical used to manufacture one product (R&D data) was at risk of being outlawed (legal).
In half of these teams, one member was given a written overview of the specialties held by the various members. In the remaining teams, this information was divided across members, so A might know B possesses legal info (but not that they also possess marketing info), B knows what C possesses, and so on. The take-home result? After their 15 minutes of team discussion, those with one member “in the know” about member specialities produced better rankings compared to teams with divided metaknowledge. Why?
Previously, this research group from the Rotterdam School of Management has found that people are most ready to share information and spark debate when their attention is drawn to how we each possess very different knowledge and experiences, meaning that any single perspective is bound to be partial and incomplete.
They reasoned that in the current study, giving one individual all of a group’s metaknowledge gave this person a good shove into this state, so that they took steps to uncover the submerged information; even better, this person’s modelling of such behaviour likely sparked the same in return from their team-mates. Evaluating videos of the team discussions confirmed this analysis – members of teams with one central meta-knowledge individual asked more questions of each other about who knew what, and went on to incorporate and fuse information together more often, and this contributed to their better performance.
Note, the strategy of centralising meta-knowledge is not always advantageous. A single centralised focus didn’t help teams in another condition, where each member received all relevant information (legal, R&D) about one product, such as the “Health-Conscious Adults” drink. By their nature, these members are already interconnecting types of knowledge, and performed highly with or without a catalyst figure.
Sharing of meta-knowledge matters most when knowledge is segmented by speciality – all too familiar to those of us who have worked in silo’d organisations, and inevitable for some types of high-level decision-making. In real life, the chasm between the knowledge possessed by different specialists is likely to be even deeper than in the simulated conditions of this study.
In an ideal world, of course everyone would have a complete and shared understanding of who knows what. But in practice, it seems advantageous (and more realistic) to aim to have at least one individual – not necessarily a leader – with a strong overview of this information. Such individuals naturally catalyse knowledge-seeking and sharing across the team, which is bound to be more productive than top-down attempts to build team-wide meta-awareness through data living/hiding on intranets or through time-consuming update meetings.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Mell, J., van Knippenberg, D., & van Ginkel, W. (2014). The Catalyst Effect: The Impact of Transactive Memory System Structure on Team Performance Academy of Management Journal, 57 (4), 1154-1173 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0589

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Is group brainstorming more effective if you do it standing up?

Experts say that spending more time standing at work is good for your physical well-being. Now there’s another reason to ditch your office chair. According to psychologists in the US, standing improves group brainstorming sessions.

Andrew Knight and Markus Baer recruited 214 undergrads to take part in a 30-minute brainstorming session in groups of three to five people. The challenge for the groups was to come up with ideas for a university recruitment video, which they then recorded at the end of the session.

All groups were filmed as they took turns to conduct their brainstorm in the same room – a 13.5 x 8.5 foot space, with table, whiteboard and note pads. For half of the groups, there were five office chairs around the table, whereas for the other groups there were no chairs.

Knight and Baer found that groups working in the room with no chairs showed higher arousal, as measured by a gadget worn around the wrist that detected skin sweatiness. Students in these groups also showed reduced territoriality, which means that individuals felt less possessive of the ideas they generated. This might be because the lack of chairs encouraged them to share the physical space and this facilitated a sharing mindset. The good news is both these factors – higher arousal and less territoriality – were associated with more “idea elaboration”. This is the process, crucial for successful group brainstorming, by which each individual’s best ideas are recombined with other people’s, or improved upon by others.

Strangely, the researchers don’t report whether students in the chairless room spent more time standing (perhaps they sat on the floor?). However, the chairless students did say afterwards that they felt there was more room to move around, and their higher arousal could be a sign of more movement.

The researchers concluded: “Our results suggest that if leaders aspire to enhance collaborative knowledge work, they might consider eschewing the traditional conference room setup of tables and chairs and, instead, clear an open space for people to collaborate with one another.”

The downer for this study is that while a space with no chairs was beneficial for the manner in which students worked together, ultimately there was no improvement in terms of the final videos that they produced. That is, videos produced by groups working in a room with no chairs were rated by judges as no more polished or creative, than videos produced by groups working in a room with chairs. Further research, preferably with creative professionals, is needed to replicate the main finding that standing brainstorms are conducted in a more effective way, and to see whether this can boost final creative output.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Knight, A., & Baer, M. (2014). Get Up, Stand Up: The Effects of a Non-Sedentary Workspace on Information Elaboration and Group Performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550614538463

–further reading–
Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?
The much maligned group brainstorm can aid the process of combining ideas
Forget brainstorming – try brainwriting!

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

How to maintain a well-flowing team, even with the odd icy relationship

What prevents icy relations between two team members chilling the climate for everyone? New research suggests that it’s not enough simply to have plenty of chances to communicate. Instead, teams that cope with a touch of frost carry out work where everyone sinks or swims together, and have “high quality social exchange”: simply put, they care about each other’s needs and achievements.

Jeroen Jong of the Open University of the Netherlands and his Tilburg University collaborators surveyed members of 73 teams from eight European organisations. Each team was coded as to whether any member had a negative attitude towards one or more other members (“dislike” or “dislike a lot” on a four-point scale), with 44 per cent of teams encompassing at least one such negative attitude.

The researchers predicted even a single negative relationship would disrupt team cohesion and reduce performance. However, they believed this harm could be ameliorated by three factors: frequent in-team communication; interdependent working; and high-quality social exchange. They reasoned that team members who communicate with each other have more avenues to process and respond to tensions and conflicts when they arise; that teams who work more interdependently have to find ways to live with issues; and teams that have high-quality social exchange are oriented towards restoring harmony or accepting difference with grace. Each of these factors was rated by team-members and averaged to create a trio of team scores.

The data confirmed that any negative dynamic within a team tended to erode its cohesion and reduce performance. But for both highly interdependent teams and those with high quality interactions, these harmful effects disappeared. Surprisingly perhaps, high in-team communication did not ameliorate the harm of frosty relations. Jong and his collaborators wonder whether communication might be more important for buffering against negativity arising in the first place, rather than for dealing with it when it occurs. However, this wasn’t directly tested. I’d also be interested whether there was a 3-way interaction: could cohesion be worst of all when a team contains a negative relationship, team members communicate incessantly, but this chat is characterised by low-quality interactions (including disinterest in wellbeing and each others contributions)?

This study suggests that local issues within a team – the feelings between two members – can “trickle up” to affect the team as a whole. Yet top-level features such as interdependent work tasks can push right back, and can be strong enough to hold problems in check, preventing a bad apple or two from spoiling the whole barrel.
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  ResearchBlogging.orgde Jong, J., Curşeu, P., & Leenders, R. (2014). When do bad apples not spoil the barrel? Negative relationships in teams, team performance, and buffering mechanisms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99 (3), 514-522 DOI: 10.1037/a0036284

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

The scourge of meeting late-comers

Tardiness at meetings is one of the biggest unexplored issues in work-place behaviour, according to a team of researchers in the USA. Steven Rogelberg and his colleagues attempted to estimate the base rate of meeting lateness via a survey of 195 employees across South-eastern USA, reporting on over 300 meetings. Participants admitted arriving late an average of 5 per cent of the time. Multiply by the number of attendees at a typical meeting (the average in this sample was 8) and this makes the odds of a single late-comer high and helps explain the finding that 37 per cent of meetings on average started late.

Less satisfied employees, the less conscientious, younger employees, and those with a dislike for meetings, all tended to report being late more often. Job level was not related to (self-confessed) tardiness.

Does it matter if a person arrives late? The researchers said it has a negative impact on both the late comer, who is often judged to be rude, and the rest of the team. Most participants reported experiencing negative feelings when someone shows up late, including frustration, feeling disrespected and upset. This is bad news, the researchers said, because “negative mood states can negatively impact performance.” If you consider that an estimated 11 million meetings occur in the USA each day, and that $37 billion is lost annually thanks to unproductive meetings – the role of meeting lateness could be massive.

Part of the problem is that people vary in their definition of lateness. In another study, Rogelberg’s team surveyed 665 international participants (average age 37) via StudyResponse.Com with an open-ended  question about their understanding of meeting lateness.

Just over a fifth of the sample defined lateness as arriving after the scheduled start time (which was the objective definition used in the survey into the base rate of lateness). Another fifth defined lateness as a certain fixed time after the scheduled start – in other words, they were allowing for a “grace” period, varying from a few minutes to more than ten minutes. Thirty-two per cent defined lateness as arrival after the meeting had actually got underway.  Some (6 per cent) defined lateness simply as “keeping others waiting”, or “interrupting the flow” (5 per cent). Finally, a minority (3 per cent) saw lateness in terms of whether a person was “ready to go” once the meeting had started.

The participants were also presented with a range of set scenarios and asked if these were an incidence of lateness. Although most people considered arrival five minutes after the scheduled start as lateness, responses here also showed how much social factors come into play. For instance, far fewer people said they would consider themselves late if they arrived five minutes after the scheduled start time, but other people had yet to arrive and those already there were still chit-chatting.

The study has some obvious weaknesses, including a reliance on memory and self-report, and the emphasis on Western attitudes to time.

“In light of the frequency, consequences, and conceptual complexity of meeting lateness, along with the dearth of extant research on the topic, it is a phenomenon primed for further study,” the researchers said. “This study was an attempt to energise such research as the potential appears vast.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Rogelberg, S., Scott, C., Agypt, B., Williams, J., Kello, J., McCausland, T., and Olien, J. (2013). Lateness to meetings: Examination of an unexplored temporal phenomenon European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/1359432X.2012.745988

–Further reading–
Towards healthier meetings (feature article from The Psychologist).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Psychologically safe teams can incubate bad behaviour

When impropriety or corruption emerges in an organisation, some cry “bad apple!” where others reply “more like bad barrel!” Yet between individuals and organisations we have teams, the context in which decisions are increasingly made. A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds some light on what it takes for teams to behave badly.

Researchers Matthew Pearsall and Aleksander Ellis recruited 378 undergraduate management studies students (about 1/3 female), already organised into study groups of three who had collaborated for months. Participants were asked to rate themselves on items relating to different philosophical outlooks, the pertinent one being utilitarianism, where the focus is on outcomes. Previous research suggests individuals who highly value utilitarianism tend to behave more unethically, as they are more prepared to bend rules or mislead if they perceive the ends to justify the means. Pearsall and Ellis suspected the same to be true in groups.

Each team was given a real opportunity to behave unethically, by cheating in the self-evaluation of a piece of coursework. Buried within the scoring criteria was an issue that could not possibly have been covered in the assignment, meaning any team that ticked this off was faking it. As expected, teams with a higher average utilitarianism score were more likely to cheat, mirroring the effect found for individuals.

However, there is a protective buffer against acting unethically in a team. You may be willing to bend the rules, and even suspect others share your view… but do you really want to be the first to say so out loud? Pearsall and Ellis predicted that making this step requires a strong feeling of psychological safety, the sense that others will not judge or report you for speaking out or taking risks. It turns out that the cheating behaviour observed in teams with high utilitarianism scores was almost entirely dependent on a psychologically safe environment, as measured using items like “It is safe to take a risk on this team”. Lacking that safe environment, the highly utilitarian teams were almost as well-behaved as their lower-scoring counterparts.

The researchers note that academic cheating involves relatively low stakes, so this may be a constraint on how far we should generalise to other situations. They also emphasise that psychological safety is generally something we prize in teams, and rightly so: through facilitating open communication and consideration of alternate views it can enhance performance, learning and adaptation to change. However, this evidence suggests that it can also incubate unethical behaviour, and the researchers urge that the field continues to look beyond the traits of individual miscreants to consider state factors such as psychological safety, that allow bad behaviour to take root.
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ResearchBlogging.orgPearsall, M., & Ellis, A. (2011). Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2), 401-411 DOI: 10.1037/a0021503

Post written by Alex Fradera.

The much maligned group brainstorm can aid the process of combining ideas

Research on group creativity shows consistently that the same people come up with more ideas working on their own than they do when brainstorming together. But perhaps it’s time to move beyond this striking yet superficial discovery. After all, having a list of initial ideas is not the end of the creative process. A new study by Nicholas Kohn and colleagues has focused on the creative task of idea combination, finding that in this context groups do have advantages over individuals working alone.

One hundred and eight student participants formed groups of three working at computer terminals located apart (this set-up was used to rule out the influence of various social factors that emerge in face-to-face situations). The participants’ ten-minute task was to come up with fresh ideas for how to improve their university. Some of the groups of three shared their ideas electronically – that is, each individual could see the ideas of their two fellow team members appear on their own screen as they worked. Other groups worked alone, each individual entirely cut off from their two team members.

The next stage was about idea combination. All participants, whether they previously worked alone or not, now had access to a list of their own existing ideas and the already proposed ideas of their team members. For the next fifteen minutes participants attempted to combine these existing ideas into novel concepts, or to combine an existing idea with a new one. Crucially, half the participants (whether they previously worked alone or collaboratively) now did the combining on their own; the other half could see their team members’ newly combined ideas appear on-screen as they worked.

Consistent with past research, participants who worked alone in the first phase came up with more ideas than those who worked cooperatively with their team members. However, team working was more successful in the second, idea combination phase. Although participants working on their own came up with more combined ideas, it was the combined ideas produced by participants working together that were rated by independent judges as being more useful.

Another finding was that participants who worked alone in the first phase were more likely to use other people’s ideas to form novel combinations in the second phase (rather than just combining their own earlier ideas), perhaps because they were seeing them for the first time and therefore finding them more stimulating.

A second study was similar to the first except the participants were asked to form newly combined ideas out of existing ideas from an external source (ie. not generated by themselves or their team members). The topic was as before – how to improve the university. Some groups worked with ideas categorised as common, others with rare ideas. This time the collaborators sat around a table and followed a “brain writing” technique – each time they conceived of a new idea combination they wrote it down on a piece of paper and passed it to their neighbour, who rated its usefulness. The purpose of this was to make sure collaborating participants engaged with each others’ ideas.

Again, individuals working alone generated more freshly combined ideas than individuals working collaboratively – this was unsurprising since the brain writing process is time consuming. However, participants working collaboratively with rare material came up with combined ideas that judges rated as more novel and feasible, than did participants working alone. And collaborating participants working with common material came up with combined ideas rated as having more impact. This result shows again that there are times in the creative process when working collaboratively has advantages.

‘Our results provide a fertile basis for future studies to examine the factors that influence this process and enhance the ability of groups to generate combinations that are both original and useful,’ Kohn and his team concluded.
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ResearchBlogging.orgKohn, N., Paulus, P., and Choi, Y. (2011). Building on the ideas of others: An examination of the idea combination process. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.01.004

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Coffee helps women cope with stressful meetings but has the opposite effect on men

For men working together, stress plus coffee could be toxic

If a meeting becomes stressful, does it help, or make things worse, if team members drink lots of coffee? A study by Lindsay St. Claire and colleagues that set out to answer this question has uncovered an unexpected sex difference. For two men collaborating or negotiating under stressful circumstances, caffeine consumption was bad news, undermining their performance and confidence. By contrast, for pairs of women, drinking caffeine often had a beneficial effect on these same factors. The researchers can’t be sure, but they think the differential effect of caffeine on men and women may have to do with the fact that women tend to respond to stress in a collaborative, mutually protective style (known as ‘tend and befriend’) whereas men usually exhibit a fight or flight response.

The study involved 64 male and female participants (coffee drinkers at the University of Bristol with an average age of 22) completing various construction puzzles, negotiation and collaborative memory tasks in same-sex pairs. They did this after drinking decaffeinated coffee, which either had or hadn’t been spiked covertly with caffeine (the equivalent of about three cups’ worth of coffee). Stress was elevated for some of the pairs by telling them they would shortly have to give a public presentation, and by warning them that their participation fee would be performance dependent.

How large were the caffeine effects? The men’s memory performance under stressful conditions with caffeine was described by the researchers as ‘greatly impaired’ whereas caffeine didn’t affect women in the same situation. For the construction puzzles, caffeine under high stress conditions led men to take an average of twenty seconds longer (compared with no caffeine) whereas it led women to solve the puzzles 100 seconds faster.

A short-coming, acknowledged by the researchers, was that there were overall few effects of stress on the participants’ performance, no doubt in part because they’d been told they could bail out any time they liked (although none of them did). Further research is clearly need to replicate the findings and explore the possible underlying mechanisms. Such work is urgent, the researchers concluded, ‘because many … meetings, including those at which military and other decisions of great import are made, are likely to be male-dominated. Our research suggests that men’s effectiveness is particularly likely to be compromised. Because caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world, it follows that the global implications are potentially staggering.’
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St. Claire, L., Hayward, R., and Rogers, P. (2010). Interactive Effects of Caffeine Consumption and Stressful Circumstances on Components of Stress: Caffeine Makes Men Less, But Women More Effective as Partners Under Stress. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (12), 3106-3129 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00693.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

For group creativity, two narcissists are better than one

“God is really an artist, like me … I am God, I am God, I am God.” Pablo Picasso

Some experts have suggested there’s a link between narcissism and creativity – that the self-obsession and self-belief create the necessary time and space for originality to flourish. On the contrary, Jack Goncalo at Cornell University has just published results from three experiments which show that narcissists on their own aren’t any more creative than usual, even though they think they are. The narcissist’s braggadocio also leads others to overestimate the originality of their ideas. On the other hand, Goncalo’s team show that when it comes to group creativity, the competitiveness of multiple narcissists really is beneficial, so long as you don’t have too many of them.

Two hundred and forty-four undergrads completed a standardised measure of narcissism (sample items included ‘I really like to be the centre of attention’)  followed by two classic tests of creativity. One of these involved thinking up new uses for a brick, the other required them to draw a new kind of alien. Students who were more narcissistic didn’t excel any more than usual on the creativity tests, but they thought they had.

For the second study, 76 students were formed into pairs and allocated the role of movie pitcher or evaluator. The former had 10 minutes to plan an idea for a new Hollywood movie before pitching it to the latter.

Ideas pitched by students who scored higher in narcissism tended to be rated as more creative and feasible – an association that was mediated by the fact that narcissistic pitchers were perceived as more energetic and enthusiastic. However, when the transcripts of the pitches were coded carefully by independent judges unaware of who had delivered which pitches, the more narcissistic participants no longer scored higher on creativity and feasibility.

The implication seems to be that the braggadocio of the narcissists, rather than the true quality of their ideas, led evaluators to rate their pitches more highly. The researchers said that this finding should be alarming for people who work in fields that lack objective measures of the quality of ideas. ‘In such fields, creative output may gradually decline as true creative talent is continuously traded for charisma and enthusiasm,’ they warned.

So far the research has challenged the idea that narcissists on their own really are more creative. But what about in groups? The final study involved 292 undergrads completing a measure of narcissism before forming 73 four-person groups. Their task was to suggest ways for a real company to improve its performance. The key finding here was that groups with approximately two narcissists on board tended to outperform those with more or fewer narcissists. Why should this be? Goncalo’s team think that the presence of two narcissists generates a healthy dose of in-group competition, thus helping idea generation. However too many narcissists in the proverbial kitchen and the excessive internal competition spoils the creative broth.

‘The same needs for recognition and power that cast a dark shadow on narcissists may position them as catalysts for creative colloquy,’ the researchers said. ‘The results suggest that to capitalise on the narcissists in our midst, we should collaborate with them and encourage them to collaborate with each other. In so doing, groups could turn what is often considered a decidedly negative trait into a valuable source of creative tension.’
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ResearchBlogging.orgGoncalo JA, Flynn FJ, and Kim SH (2010). Are Two Narcissists Better Than One? The Link Between Narcissism, Perceived Creativity, and Creative Performance. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 20947771

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

How group cooperation varies between cultures

Researchers use economic games to investigate how people cooperate in real-life. Now a team led by Benedikt Herrmann, at the University of Nottingham, have identified striking differences in the way university students from different countries play one such game known as The Public Goods Game. Compared with students from developed Western nations, students from less democratic countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Belarus tended to punish not only free-loaders, but also cooperative players, with the result that cooperation in their groups plummeted.

In 16 countries, researchers gave 20 tokens each to thousands of students who were arranged into groups of four anonymous players. On each round, the students, who interacted via computer screens, had to choose how much to invest in the group kitty, such that every member would be paid 0.4 tokens for every token invested in the kitty, regardless of whether they themselves had contributed.

The nature of the game means that if everyone contributes the maximum amount, all members can gain by receiving a return of 32 tokens each. However, there is also the temptation to be selfish, to ‘free-load’. For example, if one member contributes nothing to the kitty, while everyone else contributes the maximum, that selfish member will receive 44 tokens.

Crucially, after each round, players can see the choices of the other players, and in one version of the game they were able punish others if they wanted to, by sacrificing a token of their own so that another player loses several of theirs.

When players had the option to punish, the groups tended to display more cooperation, which is consistent with past research showing that the ability to punish can help foster cooperative behaviour. However, in some countries, ‘selfish’ players also punished cooperative players, perhaps as a means of revenge for punishments they had suffered, or maybe as a way of punishing do-gooders for showing them up. The researchers called this ‘anti-social punishment’, and the groups where this occurred tended to cooperate less.

Anti-social punishment occurred more in those countries, including Belarus and Saudi Arabia, shown by surveys to have less faith in the rule of law and less belief in civic cooperation. In a commentary on the findings, published in the same journal, Herbert Gintis of the Sante Fe Institute, said the results challenge the way people have tended to view capitalist democracies. “The success of democratic market societies may depend critically upon moral virtues as well as material interests, so the depiction of civil society as the sphere of ‘naked self-interest’ is radically incorrect,” he wrote.
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Herrmann, B., Thoni, C., Gachter, S. (2008). Antisocial Punishment Across Societies. Science, 319(5868), 1362-1367. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153808

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.