How do we think about cooperation?

Photo taken by author   |  Congress Park, Saratoga Springs, New York 

Photo taken by author  |  Congress Park, Saratoga Springs, New York 

A group of people choose to use the crosswalk to negotiate a busy street. A cyclist slows down in a crowded shared pathway. A person holds a door open for another. Students show up to class a little early. A son helps his father learn how to build a website. A man silences his phone at the movie theatre. A woman signals that she is about to change lanes.

All these things might be interpreted as acts of cooperation. Many of them we often take for granted, especially those so ordinary that we consider part of a tacit social contract- they’re just what we do to keep things running smoothly. When we are aware that we’re engaging in a cooperative act, our motivations are likely to be fairly complex. A particular instance of cooperation might be guided by any number of overlapping motivations, such as rules, norms, assumptions, prejudices, self-interest, compassion, fear, rebellion, morality, faith, or simply habit.

Here at ASU there is actually a lab dedicated to studying cooperation. (One could argue convincingly that ASU has multiple research groups studying cooperation from different perspectives.) I recently met with a woman named Pam who works with the lab. I wanted to learn more about one of their main foci, the Human Generosity Project. I won’t discuss the project here, but if you're interested you can check it out at Instead, I want to explore how we think about cooperation.

Over coffee on the ground floor of the Biodesign Institute, Pam and I were talking about some of the interesting ways cooperation manifests. At one point, she suggested that I pick a day and take note of all the forms of cooperation that I observe. Those of you who know me might think this is a very ‘Matt Nock’ thing to do, and therefore won’t be surprised that after Pam and I parted ways, I spent the following two hours doing exactly that. Well, sort of. I thought the experience would be akin to a form of participant observation, but I quickly realized that in order for me to take note of cooperative acts, I first had to decide what counted as cooperation- and what did not. And to make this distinction, I needed to ask myself, ‘how do I think about cooperation?’

I find that in these sorts of situations, it is often best to start with myself as the site of inquiry, lest I falsely ascribe all manner of meaning to the actions of others. So I first recorded all of my behaviors that I considered to be cooperative. Here is a selection of those observations:

  • I rode my bicycle close to the curb so others could pass me on the left
  • I walked more quickly toward a door when someone was holding it open for me
  • I made eye-contact and smiled with someone who seemed to be a bit lost so they might be encouraged to ask for directions
  • I waited a short distance away from a woman while she vacated her seat so that I didn't risk making her feel rushed
  • I made a welcoming gesture to a man who seemed to be considering sitting across the table from me
  • I averted my eyes when a young woman walked by wearing very revealing clothing
  • I decided not to answer a call from my mom because people nearby were working
  • I periodically checked on and corrected my posture
  • I allowed myself to sit quietly for five minutes when observing myself became overwhelming

You may have done some of these things with the notion of cooperation in mind. Perhaps some you don’t think of as cooperative per se. I suspect the last two observations on the list don’t fit your expectation of what counts as cooperation. I was a bit surprised when I jotted them down, but I think they are essential for understanding how I think about cooperation.

Here’s my mental "cooperation scheme". I cooperate with others and myself. When cooperating with other people, they are often a part of my immediate surroundings, like when I hold a door open for someone. It is also possible that my behavior is in anticipation of cooperating with someone who never shows up; I’ll cycle close to the curb even though I can’t be sure someone will want to pass me. This means that some of my cooperative acts are more anticipatory than reactionary, and they may be harder for others to detect as intentional forms of cooperation.

In addition to cooperating with those around me, actual or potential, I also cooperate with people who aren’t even there. This is why I attributed adjusting my posture to cooperation. I am grateful to have two dance instructors here in Tempe who are dedicated to my growth, and we spend extra time before and after class working on muscle isolation and control through ballet exercises. I am reciprocating their dedication to me by working to integrate their teaching into my everyday experiences, and in this way, I see continuously working to integrate body as a form of cooperation with my dance instructors.

I also cooperate with myself. To understand what I mean, it helps to know that I perceive of myself as a being made up of multiple dimensions (lets go with body, intellect, emotion, and spirit) that move between states of fragmentation and integration depending on a wide range of factors. From this perspective, it may be easier to see how sometimes my actions support one dimension at the expense of others. When I talk about cooperating with myself, I am really talking about instances when I choose to explore a particular dimension or to integrate them all through some form of experience. For example, while I was observing my own cooperation, I noticed that my mind started to automatically attribute my self-perceptions to the actions of others, which I was expressly trying to avoid. This was an instance of my intellect overriding the other dimensions in its ceaseless pursuit of domination (as you can probably see, this is a reoccurring challenge I face). So my response of a brief contemplative practice to ‘put my mind in check’, so to speak, was an act of cooperating with myself.

That’s a sketch of how I think about cooperation. There are other elements which I won’t get into here, like motivation, conscious and unconscious acts, habitual cooperation, the distinction between self-interest and altruism, and the cooperation derived from not acting. However, these things are certainly all worth considering in their own right, and the experience of observing my own cooperation made me realize how relational my behaviors really are, both within myself and with others.

I encourage you to explore how you think about cooperation- who knows what you might learn! If nothing else, you may find (as I did) that choosing to notice how you and others are cooperating is a refreshing change from focusing on all the uncharitable things we humans tend to do. 

About the Author: Matt Nock is a third-year PhD student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research is at the intersection of sustainability education and public pedagogy, and focuses on the ways in which the dominant discourses of social and environmental oppression are reproduced or challenged through formal and informal learning processes.