We vs. Me and the Art of Balance

Unlike his fellow theoretical biologists, David Sloan Wilson spends a fair amount of his time on applied science.



Unlike his fellow theoretical biologists, David Sloan Wilson spends a fair amount of his time on applied science. A few years ago, for example, he and his students started looking at community spirit and altruism in their university town in upstate New York. The researchers counted Halloween and Christmas decorations, reasoning that neighborhoods with more holiday bling showed more community spirit. They also polled high-school students, asking them to rate how much they agreed with statements like “I think it is important to help other people.” And they had the kids play two-person economic games in which cooperation yields better long-term results for both players — but only if neither succumbs to the temptation to go for a quick, selfish payoff.

Cities all over the United States show a marked variation in income from neighborhood to neighborhood, and you might expect those differences to affect how public-spirited and cooperative neighbors are. According to the researchers, it did: The more affluent a neighborhood was, the less likely residents were to be cooperative, helpful and public-spirited.

Wilson’s project has a practical, untheoretical fix-things-now side: He wants to harness knowledge of human nature to improve people’s lives. One of his other projects organized neighborhoods to compete with each other in transforming vacant lots into recreational space. This exercise showed the same inverse correlation between income level and cooperativeness. “Some of the people in low-income neighborhoods are the most amazing networkers that I have ever seen,” Wilson wrote on the blog Big Ideas Online. On the other hand, “some of the so-called ‘nicer’ neighborhoods are sadly inert. Each family keeps a tidy home and lawn and doesn’t make trouble for the others, but positive social connections are almost non-existent.”

Of course it’s also possible that the residents of the higher-end homes were more involved with others who weren’t nearby, because their higher income afforded them more plane tickets, broadband Internet telephony and other means of feeling close to acquaintances and relatives who were physically distant. Given the last 300 years of economic history, few today would deny that each human being has a powerful hunger to have more of what he desires and to have more choices in life. Many leaders assume, though, that this drive for individual advancement is also the driver of organizational success. How better to motivate a member of a team, or employee of an organization, than to give her as much as you can in the realm of money, recognition and opportunities for self-advancement?

Wilson’s work suggests that this orthodoxy is wrong. And it’s not an outlier in research on how the mind and brain work. The consensus view on human nature from science, in fact, is that any member of a group will feel a drive to advance as an individual and a separate impulse to give the team all he has. You can’t assume those drives will neatly align. Nor, for that matter, can you assume that they’ll always be in conflict. Instead, a person in an organization has a volatile and complex mix of motives, some “for me” and some “for we.” Effective leaders, it turns out, are those who foster neither total selfishness nor group worship. They instinctively keep those “me” and “we” drives in some kind of harmony. It’s not as easy as proclaiming “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’ ” or, alternately, “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families,” as Margaret Thatcher once told her troops. But it leads to more effective teamwork and happier team members.

Put simply, humans often put “us” ahead of “me” in their daily lives, despite the economic irrationality of the choice, and their groups and organizations benefit from that choice. For example, studies have shown that members of organizations, if they report themselves satisfied with their position, will see the group’s interest as their own, even if objective measures would show a conflict. And political scientists have found that research subjects’ calculations about their interests in politics are collective, not individual. Women who have done well in their careers will respond to politicians who want to reduce gender discrimination, and African-Americans who are in the ranks of the elite will still be concerned about the plight of other African-Americans rather than voting the interests of their economic class.

Many managers compare their work to herding cats, but human beings are put together very differently from loner animals. In fact, we are far more prone to cooperate than our close relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are. These apes share more than 98 percent of their genetic code with human beings, yet they couldn’t calmly share an elevator with strangers, or choose sides with unknown fellow-apes for a friendly game. On the continuum between total self-interest and complete devotion to the greater group, apes are closer to cats, while human beings are closer to bees or ants.

In fact, some psychologists and biologists have speculated that the human species has crossed the line and joined the ranks of “extra-social” species, whose members are so devoted that a large group of individuals can be viewed as if it were a single “super-organism” — like a beehive or anthill.

In the view of Selin Kesebir, a psychologist at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, our minds are shaped to make us cooperative members of a hive. “Identification with a group is the switch that activates these mechanisms,” she wrote in a recent paper. Any group will do if it provides the psychological pathway from “me” to “we”: religion, nation, race, ideology, sports team, military unit, and, of course, a corporation or work team. Each of us, she argues, is an individualist ape much of the time, but capable of becoming a loyal drone under the right circumstances. Once we sense that we’re part of a hive, we have psychological mechanisms that make it easy for us to get in line and do our part, while our chimp cousins would keep insisting, with bites and kicks and screams, on getting their own way.

One of these mechanisms is quick and untroubled communication — the sense that among “us” it is easy to comprehend what others mean, that here “we” all understand each other. It is “that absence of self-consciousness [emphasis added], that ease and fellowship and sense of common values which make for intimacy, and sanity, and the quick give and take of familiar intercourse,” as Virginia Woolf once put it.
Communication is more than nouns and verbs. A shared culture of references, folktales, proverbs and the like also marks group members as belonging together, as do music, dancing and marching — synchronized sounds and movement helping to communicate that “we are one.” Our communication channels allow us to share goals and plans — to understand that a desired outcome (win this election, get this company back on top, move this stuff out of the garage) is shared and to be able to do the complex mental work of taking one’s place in a mosaic of different workers doing different things. As Kesebir points out, even the biology of the human eye makes it easier to work together: The visible white surrounding our iris is unusual (our primate relatives have dark eyes that don’t “pop” against surrounding skin tones) and encourages sharing ideas in the most literal sense. If a group member shifts her gaze to look at something, others notice it and are likely to look at the same place.

Another trigger of we-feeling is a sense of tradition, taboo or authority. It may be embodied in a leader or sacred figure, but it need not be. Often, this sense arises in an unconscious but powerful consensus based on shared history and shared rules. This is important to note because deference to group authority is not necessarily the same as deference to a single person.

In fact, a feeling of “we” is easier to stir when team members believe that all are being treated the same, and the sense of “we’re all in it together” is often enough to transform straying cats into eager bees. As anyone with kids knows, people the world over have a natural fascination with “fairness” and easily resent a sense that any individual has special privileges or advantages. This is part of the mentality of groups, Kesebir says, because a sense that all members are treated the same evokes that feeling of shared destiny, that the fate of one is the fate of all. This intense interest in fairness makes group members eager to punish anyone they perceive to be cheating. Self-centered as we often are, when we see a conflict between our interests and those of a group to which we belong, we tend to prefer the interests of the group.

That is one of the most striking lessons of an economic experiment called the Ultimatum Game. Research at the psychological and even physiological level has shown that human beings have a built-in sense of justice. In the Ultimatum Game, for example, two players are told they will split a reward. One player can offer any kind of split he likes (50 -50, 60-40, even 1-99) and the other player can either accept or reject it. No negotiation is allowed — Player 1 makes a single offer and Player 2 accepts or rejects.

A purely rational participant, as Player 1, would offer an unfair split, perhaps as drastic as 1-99 (to minimize loss), and a rational Player 2 would accept it, reasoning that some gain is better than zero gain. Yet people around the world do not follow that strategy. Instead, proposers are much more generous, and receivers are far more determined in their refusal to accept unfair offers. The proposers’ generosity is a striking example of putting “we” ahead of “me.” Though the rules of the game would let them propose a 99-1 split, they do not want to see themselves as such an unfair person.

What’s important to understand here is that the participants in these experiments were not consciously thinking that they wanted to help the wider community or serve humanity. They were thinking about themselves. But instead of asking “What’s in it for me? How do I maximize my utility?” they were wrestling with a different question: “What kind of person am I?” Their desire to be fair made them put their own economic interests aside in favor of decisions that benefited others. Because we selfishly want to think well of ourselves, we’re motivated to act unselfishly.

In fact, some recent studies suggest that working in teams makes participants want to be even more unselfish. According to the theory of “competitive altruism,” people often find themselves in settings where they strive to outdo one another in their unselfishness, in order to gain a valuable reputation for generosity. In one study of informal work groups in a village on the Caribbean island of Dominica, the men with reputations for generosity attracted the most helpers and got the most hours from others.

While social scientists are still debating these theories, the evidence is convincing that human beings are an odd combination of “in it for me” and “in it for we.” It’s not hard to see how the triggers that psychologists discuss — making group members feel they communicate well among themselves, share a common fate and are largely alike — could get them to want to work for the good of the team.

But the “we” mentality can be taken too far. When individuals in an organization give up too much of their independence, the group will reject new ideas or, in the worst case scenario, any ideas at all. Dancing, marching and chanting in unison are fun, but how often do they produce new insights? Too much “we” spirit is often at the root of complaints of prejudice and workplace bullying, where an “outsider” is usually the target. Team spirit is great, but you don’t want the love of the hive to wipe out the workers’ desire to distinguish themselves.

At the same time, many organizations’ incentive structures produce the inverse problem: They encourage employees to think “What’s in it for me?” by stressing only salary, benefits and individual competition. The built-in drivers of “we-feeling” will break down in unfavorable environments. If team members don’t see the triggers, they won’t get the feeling. And even if they do have the feeling, a hyper-individualist environment can train them out of it. (Students of economics, for example, are much more unfair in the Ultimatum Game than typical players.) An organization that lacks we-feeling is not operating at full potential, because it isn’t tapping the vast reserves of time and energy that are unleashed when group members feel they are part of something bigger than just “me.”

In other words, somewhere between a completely “me”-centered approach (which fails to leverage the natural “groupiness” of the human mind) and a collectivist nightmare (which crushes all the benefits of individual initiative), there is a “sweet spot”: an organizational culture that celebrates individual achievement and the pleasures of doing your bit for the team. If an organization is leaning too much to collectivism, getting to that sweet spot may mean telling bosses to dial back the team spirit and let every employee decorate his cubicle how he likes. If, as is more likely, a team member is leaning too much toward “me-first,” it may be a matter of thinking differently about the rewards of working in the organization. Perhaps it’s time to put less emphasis on pay and more on the pleasures of collaborating. Or to set up a softball team. It may not be easy to find, but the zone between “me” and “we” is where individuals do their best work.

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