Emma Levine, Alixandra Barasch, David Rand, Jonathan Berman, and Deborah Small have published an interesting new paper titled, "Signaling emotion and reason in cooperation," in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. They conducted a series of experiments to examine how people decide whether to cooperate with another individual. The experiments used two-player prisoner dilemma games to examine what might cause someone to be more or less cooperative with another party. Their findings identify an interesting distinction between emotional and rational cues. Here's an excerpt from NYU Stern's concise summary of the article:
The experiments revealed that people infer that emotional actors are more likely to be prosocial, or altruistic, than rational actors. That is, people assume that individuals who make their decisions emotionally are more likely to cooperate, and then respond accordingly by cooperating more with them. “We find that people associate one’s reliance on emotion with prosocial motivations and feelings such as empathy and compassion, rather than selfish emotions, such as greed,” says Professor Barasch.
In addition, reaction to these signals depends on how people themselves make decisions. While people who rely on emotion themselves are quite responsive to signals of emotion and reason, people who rely on reason do not respond as strongly to these cues, instead making their decision to cooperate through calculated self-interest. “We show that people see emotion as a signal of cooperation, and will cooperate more with individuals who make their decisions emotionally. However, signals like this are less important to people who make their own decisions using reason – they cooperate less overall, and are not responsive to these social cues.”
The study has important implications as we work on new teams or with new partners on a project or initiative. We not only need to be aware of the cues that we are emitting, but we must understand how others make decisions. Are they more rational or emotional? What does that mean for our ability to engage in cooperative behavior? Naturally, we also need to be careful not to put ourselves in a precarious position, where others might try to take advantage of our altruism. Finally, we need to think carefully about our own behaviors that might suggest a powerful desire to pursue self-interests. Those cues might harm our ability to elicit cooperation from the very people we need to work with to achieve our personal goals as well as the broader organizational objectives.