Social Neuroscience, Collaboration and Competitive Advantage

Survival turns out not to be a zero-sum game for primates

Better collaboration and cooperation can drive break through competitive advantage.


Well actually everything works better when we collaborate and cooperate and treat each other well.

There isn’t really any question that impulses to collaboration and cooperation not only exist but are essential to any kind of coordinated activity. Try landing someone on the moon by yourself.

However we are taught to think that the collaborative and cooperative impulse is artificially bought about by social constraints. That the impulse to selfish self interest is the more basic fundamental force always ready to break through the veneer of collaboration.

But the facts don’t actually bear this out.

Consider this article in The Scientific American which includes useful references to detailed scientific work in the area.

The evidence suggests we need to revise the old model.

Here’s Matthew Lieberman another well respected neuroscientist and researcher in the rapidly emerging are of Social Neuroscience writing in his recent book “Social”:

“….individuals were asked if they were willing to give up some of their winnings (for example, lose $2) so that a charity would receive $5. Amazingly, as a group, the individuals in this study showed even greater activity throughout the reward regions of the brain when they made the choice to give away some of their own money to help others, compared to when they received money with no strings attached. Our supposedly selfish reward system seems to like giving more than receiving”.

Lieberman, Matthew D.. Social: Why our brains are wired to connect (p. 90). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

The point here is that we are actually hard wired for collaboration and cooperation at least as much as for selfishness.

For those interested in a further extensive overview of work in this area Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence is a deeply referenced source. We might not agree with all that he infers or concludes but the 50 + pages of references and notes alone make it a great resource for further reading.

In fact there is increasing evidence that the hard wired tendency to collaboration and altruism uses up a huge amount of our brain capacity because it has such a profound positive affect on our evolution and our ability to survive and flourish.

Far from being a thin veneer plastered over a fundamentally selfish nature, the impulse to collaboration and altruism is our greatest asset in just about everything we do.

As Lieberman says “Survival turns out not to be a zero-sum game for primates.”

There is very solid evidence now showing that lack of collaborative interaction and lack of the opportunity for giving can make us both mentally and physically ill.

That doesn’t mean selfish personal survival is not a strong motivator, of course it is.

But the evidence is that it isn’t the primarily productive one when it comes to further evolutionary development and being the dominant species.

What does this mean for a business or an organisation? How can this have anything to do with performance?

If your people are working from the basis that they and their colleagues, customers and suppliers are fundamentally venal and selfish then they are almost certainly working far below the possible optimum due to reduced collaboration and cooperation with one another, clients, suppliers and the world in general.

On top of that add the lost productivity arising from stress related illness. Maybe not all of that is due to working with the selfish view but it looks like that is a major contributor.

The fact is that the dominant constructive evolutionary and developmental quality we have is a deep rooted fundamental drive to collaboration and cooperation.

Of course a case can be made for our collaborative wiring being very much in our best interests in every way, allowing us to arrive back at the theme of self interest. At that point though we are just playing with words. In practice collaboration and cooperation win every time.

How do you shift paradigms if most of the people in the organisation are still working in the old mode of competition for scarce resources rather than the collaborative creation of abundance?

Their levels of anxiety, fear and stress need to be reduced and new patterns of what is possible need to be introduced. The first part of this is what is usually missed and ignored in most attempts at change, reducing anxiety and fear. In most cases the very opposite happens.

Shifting away from self interest may feel like a huge, dangerous move but actually it isn’t because in reality the only reason organisations work is because collaboration and altruism continue to make them.

So a creative shift is not so much violently chopping something out and putting something new in place but about letting something go and allowing the system to rebalance along the lines to which it is more pre-disposed in the first place.

A shift in paradigm is far less scary and much more fun than the fear themes played out in the theatre of the self interest model would have us believe. The other, better way of doing things is already there, just concealed under a layer of stigma and incorrect assumptions.

Given the opportunity and the sense that it is safe to do so people would much rather cooperate and collaborate because it is more rewarding in every way. Right down to the basic brain chemistry.

That is why we have developed one part of Liminal Coaching to provide the means for people to reduce the activity of the anxiety / fear circuits in the brain and allow their own innate creativity and collaboration to emerge. Both for their own personal benefit and that of the organisation and society in which they live. There is, it appears, no real difference between the welfare and evolution of the individual and the welfare and evolution of the collective.