LSE research disproves current thinking over how to achieve global collaboration

Our model shows that people care far more about immediate rewards than whether someone has acted virtuously.
- Dr Michael Muthukrishna
Global_people_Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay_747x560
People connected around the world Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
  • Modeling from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) shows that people care more about immediate rewards (personal to them) than benefits that will come over time (ie a cleaner planet for future generations) so aligning these reputations is critical to global collaboration.
  • New paper disproves seminal theory that a positive reputation is enough to create large alliances, explaining why efforts to create global agreement on tackling major issues like climate change are failing.  
  • In times of hardship, these immediate rewards become even more important, with new approaches vital if longer-term collaboration is to succeed.

The world’s most pressing issues such as climate change will only be solved through global cooperation. New research by academics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), published in PNAS, however, has identified a fundamental flaw in the theory that underpins much of today’s thinking around how to create the lasting and meaningful large-scale change needed to solve these issues.

Current thinking is based on a seminal model by Panchanathan and Boyd published in Nature, which found that having a reputation for caring about issues such as climate change improved the likelihood that people would want to cooperate with you. This is the theory behind “virtual signaling”, and it is on the basis of this model that many interventions and experiments have been designed by organisations working to solve these problems.

The breakthrough finding by Eric Schnell and Dr Michael Muthukrishna, however, identifies a flaw in this model, showing that while reputation is important at a local level (ie being a good friend or colleague), being known for acting virtuously (ie how sustainable one’s operations are) is not enough to generate the collaborations needed at a global level to tackle problems such as climate change.

This is because, the paper explains, the earlier model assumes that people have just one reputation. Reputation, however, is not a singular issue – for example, one can be known for being excellent at recycling but mediocre at office administration. Eric Schnell and Dr Michael Muthukrishna’s new model explores what impact multiple reputations can have on people’s decision-making processes. They find that, when local and global issues are both in play, people will always favour the local benefit someone can bring to them specifically over someone doing a good deed that has less of a tangible benefit.

The modelling also shows that this is felt more keenly during hard times. When a society is successful, people can afford to care more about the more global issues, however, during a cost of living crisis the immediate benefits one can gain from a local collaboration will far outweigh the less direct benefits (ie during times of economic hardship, people care more about immediate benefits from others, than if others care about the environment).

Dr Michael Muthukrishna, Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE, said: “Our model shows that reputation alone is not enough to generate large-scale cooperation and that people care far more about immediate rewards (e.g. are you a good friend, colleague, or project partner) than whether someone has acted virtuously (e.g. are you trying to eat more sustainably).

Eric Schnell, a PhD student in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE, said: “Reputation has long been considered a key way to encourage collaboration at all levels – from individuals to organisations or between nations. Our finding, however, helps explain why global leaders, policymakers and campaigning organisations have, to date, failed to generate the kind of global cooperation needed to bring about major societal improvements the world is grappling with.” 

 "Indirect Reciprocity Undermines Indirect Reciprocity Destabilizing Large-Scale Cooperation" is published in PNAS.

Behind the article

More on Panchanathan, R. Boyd's theory of Indirect reciprocity can stabilize cooperation without the second-order free rider problem. Nature 432, 499–502 (2004).