Societies in which it is most productive to work in groups generate social norms whereby people are more trusting, more cooperative and more likely to coordinate their activities efficiently. That is the conclusion of research by Professors Uri Gneezy, Andreas Leibbrandt and John List, which is forthcoming in the Economic Journal.
Their study compares two contrasting fishing societies in Brazil: one that is located by the sea and where fishermen need to work in groups; and the other located around a nearby lake, where fishing is an individual activity. The results indicate a far stronger norm of interpersonal trust and cooperation at the sea where ecological constraints favour workplace organisation involving teamwork.
The researchers note that throughout history, trust, cooperation and coordination in domains such as hunting, trade and warfare were necessities for human survival. Today, these behaviours are as important as ever and crucial for the effective functioning of societies and organisations.
But the extent of these behaviours appears to differ significantly across countries and societies. What”s more, there is evidence suggesting that such behavioural differences are linked to economic growth and the quality of democracy.
One likely explanation for differences in trust, cooperation and coordination is based on social norms, which may have emerged as an adaption to different local pressures. The workplace organisation is a crucial part of every society. One important dimension on which workplace organisations differ describes the extent to which work is done in groups.
The extent of group activities, in turn, may be closely related to the emergence of norms of cooperation. In workplace organisations where individuals mainly work in groups, outputs typically depend more on the cooperation of group members than in workplace organisations where individuals mainly work on their own.
This difference puts more pressure on people to act cooperatively in workplace organisations characterised by high levels of group activities and may lead to the emergence of norms of cooperation in such environments.
This study investigates the underpinnings of cooperation norms and tests the hypothesis that workplaces with group activities foster their emergence. The researchers conduct a set of field experiments in Brazilian fishing societies where local natural forces determine the extent of group activities.
They compare distinct traditional fishing societies that differ along one major dimension: workplace organisation. In one society located by the sea, fishermen need to work in groups whereas in the other society, which is located around a nearby lake, fishing is an individual activity. As a result, the output of the fishermen at the sea depends on the team”s total effort and on the cooperation of members in the same fishing boat, whereas such cooperation is unnecessary at the lake.
The researchers therefore hypothesise that a stronger norm of cooperation exists at the sea where ecological constraints favour joint production activities and that this led to more interpersonal trust and a better ability to coordinate around risky activities.
Consistent with the social norm hypothesis, the study finds in several field experiments that individuals are more cooperative, trusting and coordinating if their profession is characterised by group activities and that this cannot be explained by selection.
The behavioural differences are significant: individuals who work in groups are approximately 30% more trusting, 25% more cooperative and 50% more likely to coordinate efficiently. These findings provide an example of the importance of teamwork in workplace organisations.
”Ode to the Sea: Workplace Organizations and Norms of Cooperation” by Uri Gneezy, Andreas Leibbrandt and John List is forthcoming in the Economic Journal. Uri Gneezy is at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Amsterdam. Andreas Leibbrandt is at Monash University. John List is at the University of Chicago and Monash University.