Super-cooperation: science, evolution and Japanese emergency services


What supports collaboration: nature, nurture or numbers?

As a researcher and practitioner of collaboration, I have long been fascinated by what science and evolution tell us about altruism and self-interest. I work on the basis that competition and collaboration work hand in glove, and that we ignore at our peril each on its own, and when combined. Our knowledge of game theory is too narrow, and unduly focuses on the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a single episode.

When calculations are made about how one’s response affects the other’s interest, and how the other’s response affects one’s own, the conclusion is implictly drawn that relationships need to be nurtured to deliver survival.  So my hypothesis is that in complex societies, increasingly conscious of the consequences of complexity, collaboration rather than competition becomes the default. So self-interest and altruism are not mutually exclusive: they are each expressions of a dynamic that arises from an interaction between ourselves, the environment and others, which we can consciously decide to encourage or discourage. Crucial is how we manage independence, dependence and interdependence, and combine the three.
This week’s reports of how Japanese emergency service teams, even (or especially) in crisis situations, still greet one another with a courteous bow before they start to work together, are indicative of high degrees of collaborative behaviour being strongly embedded in societies other than our own.
Research indicates that two computers, programmed to second-guess the other’s move and produce the best possible result, reach this conclusion with no human element present. 
Nicholas Colloff, Oxfam’s deputy international director, and director of innovation, has drawn my attention to this thought-provoking review in the Daily Telegraph. Nicholas Colloff is a master of super-cooperation, and his own skill in the third sector in creating and enabling alliances inspired one of the examples in Chapter 5 of my intenational report, “The Enabling State: Collaborating for Success”. 
For Darwin and students of evolution, the so-called “prairie dog” problem – because of what is says, it seems, about “altuism” in nature – has been a difficult one to explain: why do prairie dogs raise the alarm in the face of danger when they risk drawing attention to themselves and thereby endanger their own lives by alerting the other prairie dogs?
One can include God in all of this, leave God out, or as in the Book of Esther, find God everywhere even though God is never explicitly mentioned. Whether one is a believer or not, I would argue that competition and collaboration effectively function in this Book of Esther way – there is far more implicit competition/collaboration than meets the eye. When it is more explicit, we are better able to make it work in our favour, for the group and for ourselves. We are largely mineral, vegetable and animal, but what makes us particularly human is this conscious demonstration of an understanding of the explicit and implicit. Not surprisingly, the insights from emotional intellingence give us a way into better understanding what we take in and what we give expression to, in our interaction with others, which we and others might only be dimly aware of. Our construct of reality is made up as a result of this interaction. So “emotions” are vital evidence for us, as scientists, decision-makers, influencers and practitioners.

The other day, building on what I learnt from my CEDR mediation skills training, I facilitated a potentially very difficult session on finances of a charity. A key process move was to hold one-to-one confidential meetings with those directly involved and affected by the decisions before taking a meeting of the whole group so as to elicit this more sensitive information and build trust and confidence in the decision-making.  

What is interesting that evolution is still a simple yet rich scientific concept which is generating fresh insights into behaviour.

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