Competition vs. cooperation

Morality operates along two dimensions:  competition (“me first”) and cooperation (“you first”, “we first”).  Fairness could be described as the trade-off or balance between the individual interests of all concerned, a way of maximising the benefit and minimising the harm for each person, resulting from the interaction.  

Competition is always going to be feature of social life, in some way.  For each individual, natural selection operates on a relative advantage compared with others around them, and the Healing Principle, or the pressure to thrive, survive and reproduce, acts within each individual for the benefit of that individual (and their genes).  Therefore, there is pressure for an organism to do better than its fellows.

In social animals, this competition leads to dominance hierarchies as a way to decide how resources are shared out: those with a greater fighting ability are able to take what they want at the expense of those with lesser fighting ability.  A dominant position within the hierarchy becomes a “proxy” for the ability to secure food, mates, or coalitionary partners (friends and allies).  

Cooperation is an alternative strategy for thriving, surviving and reproducing, used by humans, where in the short term at least, we usually suppress some of our own needs for the sake of joining forces with others.



“U-shaped” history of human dominance hierarchies

Great apes, and presumably our own great ape ancestors, live(d) in dominance hierarchies.  

Many present-day human hunter-gatherers, including, we presume, our own ancient hunter-gather ancestors, live(d) in small groups that are/were fiercely egalitarian.

Modern humans, since, we presume, the beginnings of settled agriculture, when individuals began to amass private property, live again in dominance hierarchies.  

See also: self-domestication of the human race



Three ways of relating to people:  


Observe the following situation: Your housemate persistently leaves his dirty washing up in the sink for other people to clean up. There are four different ways to approach the situation:

Option 1. Ignore it, do nothing and hope he stops.

Option 2. Talk to him about it, let him know you don't like it.

Option 3. Shout at him, threaten him with eviction and generally intimidate him into doing it.

Option 4. ‘Accidentally’ break his favourite mug. If he cares that much about it, he should wash it up and put it away.

The option you choose will differ according to the kind of person you are.


1. The ‘passive person’ off-hands powers to others, steps back and allows him or herself to be directed by other, more assertive people. Option 1. is a good example of passive behaviour. If you choose this option, your housemate is unlikely to ever change his habits because he has no idea how you feel about the situation. You will simply have to learn to live with his dirty crockery.

2. The ‘assertive person’ maintains a good balance between understanding his or her own needs, and accommodating the needs of others. Option 2. is a good example of a fair, assertive and effective approach to the situation. If you are firm and fair, your housemate will be more likely to listen to you, respect you and make the effort to change his habits.

3. The ‘aggressive person’ is power hungry and ego-centric. He or she has little or no regard for other people's desires or opinions and wishes to meet goals forcedly, regardless of any hurt feelings. Option 3. is a good example of aggressive behaviour- if you adopt this approach you will be likely to get what you want, but you will also jeopardise the relationship you have with your housemate, as well as putting yourself at risk of future retribution.


from Counselling Directory:  “Passive Aggressive Behaviour”



Watch how somebody behaves in a difficult situation


Our days are filled with moments (stimuli) in which we need to choose how to react (a response).  Notice how [someone] responds to those inevitable awkward moments.  For example: you’re out to dinner and the waiter brings them the wrong entrée; you’re driving somewhere and someone cuts them off; you’re at Target and the cashier forgets to hand them a receipt.  When the "stuff" hits the fan, we can respond in one of three ways.

For sure, all of us are prone to knee-jerk fight or flight reactions, but with relational self-awareness, we can choose that amazing third option.  We can pause, regulate our emotions, and handle a situation in a way that we can meet our own needs without trampling all over someone else.  If [someone] has relational self-awareness, you will see them "handle with care" that awkward moment with the waiter or the driver or the cashier.

Alexandra Solomon Ph.D. – “The #1 Quality to Look for in a Romantic Partner” – Psychology Today



Chimpanzees and bonobos:  strategic cooperation within a competitive environment (the raw material for human morality)

These two species are the closest relatives of the human family line, and we may assume, or guess, that our common ancestor shared some traits with these species.  

Notwithstanding the famously “prosocial” social habits of bonobos, the social environment of a chimpanzee or bonobo group is largely competitive with a strong dominance hierarchy.  There is almost no need for cooperation in the way that these species obtain food:  picking fruit off a tree can be done side by side with little interaction apart from competition.  It is thought that bonobos are more peaceful than chimps because they live in areas where food is more plentiful.  

Within the overall, competitive group, chimps and bonobos form long-lasting, mutually beneficial friendships and coalitions.  These mini-groups then compete for dominance against other coalitions or individuals within the larger group as a whole.  Friends therefore tend to be chosen for their fighting ability.  Friendship is cultivated through acts of helping or sharing, such as grooming, or defending in a fight.  As in other mammals, helping also exists within family units.  

It has been found in formal experiments that a chimp will help another [unfamiliar] chimp in need, as long as the cost is not too great and there is no competition involved over food or other resources.  They are able to help, generally, in a targeted way.  

Great apes have a sophisticated ability to use their knowledge, experience and observations to make plans and solve problems in order to achieve their goals in the most efficient way available.  (They have individual intentionality.)  They also understand that others have intentions, goals, and a point of view (that others have individual intentionality).  They are adept at keeping track of the shifting politics, alliances and power struggles within the rest of the group, as these may affect their own position.

Their communication is competitive and dominant: consisting of commands like “give me this” or “do that”.  They do not readily share information cooperatively, for each other’s benefit, like humans do.  

Chimpanzee males are known to cooperate in a loosely organised way in order to hunt for monkeys.  

Self-regulation, inhibiting one’s immediate gratification, is a necessary ability for cooperation.  Chimpanzees have presumably learned this in the context of dominance hierarchy, to avoid angering a more dominant individual.  


In systematic experimental tests, chimpanzees have shown that they can (1) delay taking a smaller reward so as to get a larger reward later, (2) inhibit a previously successful response in favor of a new one demanded by a changed situation, (3) make themselves do something unpleasant for a highly desirable reward at the end, (4) persist through failures, and (5) concentrate through distractions.  They do all of these things at roughly the level of three-year-old human children, and at a lower level than six-year-old children.  Chimpanzees’ skills of impulse control, self-control, emotion regulation, and executive function – as these skills are variously called – are thus clearly sufficient for inhibiting selfish impulses in deference to others when it is prudent to do so.  

Michael Tomasello – A Natural History of Human Morality


They experience social emotions, such as social anger when one individual, especially a friend, harms another, and can recognise them in another.  

All of these abilities and motivations, which are used in chimps and bonobos within a competitive context, are thought to form the raw materials for the evolution of human, cooperative morality.  

This preferential helping of family and friends is a major part of human morality, but humans have gone on to extend their helping behaviour and respect to the wider population in general.  This reflects the almost total reliance of human beings upon interdependence and cooperation.  

In human societies, when cooperation breaks down, we are likely to revert to this competitive model – individuals and coalitions competing for dominance.  The pattern we have now, of groups competing with each other, has been a feature of the human race ever since we settled down and began farming and accumulating wealth and resources.  



Why You Better Grow Teeth Prof. Jordan Peterson

See also challenging behaviour; ego defenses