September 20, 2010

The dual human nature: competitive and cooperative forces

Traditionally, many people in business and economics have thought the human tendency to compete was much more important and powerful than the human tendency to cooperate. They thought that human selfishness, greediness and hunger for power and status could only be controlled and limited by strict rules. But this view of human nature is very limited.

Although a competitive side of human nature does indeed exist, it is complemented and countered by another side of human nature which is about cooperative tendencies, which are equally important and powerful. In their excellent book Secrets of the Moneylab, Kay-Yut Chen and Marina Krakovsky describe these two sides of human nature as follows:

Competitive forces
Cooperative forces
Resource striving: the craving for money and material goods
Fairness and reciprocity seeking: the demand for fairness from others and the willingness to punish unfairness as well as a tendency to repay kindness with kindness
Status seeking: the craving for status as an end in itself
Group identity seeking: the desire to belong to a group, as well as the tendency to favor members of your own group.

The authors say the preponderance of evidence points in the direction that "we're born with a dual nature, with great potential for selfishness and altruism, greed and generosity, status-seeking and fairness-seeking."


  1. Somewhat relevant "Cherokee Legend"

    An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

    "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

    The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

    The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

    Also relevant:

    Luke: "Vader... Is the dark side stronger?"
    Yoda: "No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive."
    Luke: "But how am I to know the good side from the bad?"
    Yoda: "You will know... when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack."

  2. In my eyes not fully relevant; in your two references you suggest that competitive is bad and cooperation is good. I don't think it's that black/white, I think we need both. Everybody needs a healthy level of self-interest to take care of him/herself so other energy can be focused on the common interest.
    And competition can be a very strong motivator/catalyst for change and innovation.

  3. I think that competitiveness is good but needs to be kept in check not to get out of hand.

    As for self-interest, I'm all for it as long as it is in a community interest (i.e. getting better at serving others by specializing in something).

  4. thanks Peter and Sietse for your interesting exchange of thoughts


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