Behavioural study to understand mass cooperation awarded €2.5 million

A new study to understand when and why people are prepared to cooperate and act in the interest of others, rather than themselves, has been awarded €2.5 million by the European Research Council (ERC).

The Covid-19 pandemic and global warming are two recent examples of issues that require cooperation at a very large scale. A failure to cooperate, that is, to act in one’s self-interest rather than the collective interest, could mean a bleak future for humanity, say the researchers.

Professor Simon Gaechter, an expert in the Psychology of Economic Decision Making at the University of Nottingham, is setting out to discover, when are people prepared to play their part in the solution of these fundamental problems?

There are currently numerous behavioural models of cooperation from across many disciplines, such as economics and psychology, however, alone, they typically focus on one narrow aspect of people’s behaviour. Professor Gaechter will integrate important insights from across economics, sociology, and moral and social psychology, into a new framework which would mark a major step forward in the creation of a unified science of human cooperation.

The project, “Behavioural Principles of Large-Scale Cooperation”, aims to enable future researchers and policy makers to use the framework to understand and test the behavioural effects of possible policy interventions before they are implemented.

The five-year study will combine economic, sociological and psychological aspects of cooperative behaviour into one framework, which will be tested across different cultures.

Some of the behavioural principles which will be combined include:

  • Strong reciprocity (conditional cooperation) – the act of exchanging things for mutual benefit
  • (Mis)perceptions of incentives in social dilemmas – mistaken beliefs of the benefits of taking part
  • Social value orientations (SVO) – person’s preference about how to allocate resources between themselves and another person.

Professor Simon Gaechter in the School of Economics said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a prime example of a problem that requires mass cooperation and it is likely a number of factors motivated people to play their part. This project aims to bring together models from across the disciplines that have studied human behaviour into a framework to allow us to see all of this in one place for the first time.

“I will use the new framework in representative samples from major economies around the globe to explain people’s behaviour in relevant large-scale cooperation problems, such as caring for the climate, to enable us to measure the cultural and demographic variability of rule-following.

“This is important because people’s cooperative behaviour will likely be shaped by how they perceive collective and individual incentives; their strong reciprocity preferences and social value orientations; how other people behave and think one should behave; and people’s own moral worldviews.”

Professor Gaechter is one of 209 leading researchers announced by the ERC as winning its 2020 Advanced Grants competition. It is his second ERC Advanced Grant, taking the combined value of these projects to £3.5m.

Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Nottingham said: “I congratulate Professor Gaechter on his prestigious award from the European Research Council. An exceptional transdisciplinary team will be building insights into what engenders large scale cooperation and could not be more timely. This award builds on the University’s track record of success with ERC Advanced Grants, which are highly competitive. It’s also worth highlighting that the UK is the most successful country in Europe in the 2020 awards, with 51 research projects securing almost €121m of funding to help boost skills, discovery and the economy.

“The next round of ERC grants will be funded under Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5bn programme for funding research and innovation, which is open to the UK, and the University of Nottingham’s world-leading researchers will continue to seek funding under this programme as well as strengthening our partnerships with fellow European research institutions in exciting new collaborations.”

Professor Jean Pierre Bourguignon, ERC President, said: “For this last ERC call under Horizon 2020, over 200 researchers will be funded to follow their scientific instinct and dreams. Still, the great increase in demand led to a very fierce competition: only 8% of candidates were successful. Many outstanding researchers with innovative ideas passed the excellence threshold but were left unfunded due to budget constraints another motivation for the national or regional levels to support these great projects.

“We look forward to seeing what major insights and breakthroughs will spring from this investment and trust. We are pleased with the continued positive trend for women researchers showing that ERC’s sustained efforts on this matter pay off.”

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