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What Leads to Cooperation and Competition?

by Peter T. Coleman
September 2017 Peter T.  Coleman

Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, died last March at age 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively and systematically studying ways to make the world more just and peaceful. He was a tough-minded and tenderhearted scientist with an intense commitment to developing psychological knowledge that would be relevant to important human concerns. In other words, he was deeply theoretical and genuinely practical. He believed in the power of big ideas to improve the world, and in the vital role of science to refine them.

In honor of his passing, I have selected a series of 10 major scientific contributions that Deutsch made in his efforts to promote a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. These are by no means his only contributions – there are indeed many more. However, these are those I have found as most consequential to my own research and practice, and that I feel are most likely to have the biggest impact on our future. Brief snapshots of each contribution will be presented here in a series of 10 weekly blog posts in approximate chronological order of the questions he studied over his lifetime.

2. The Crude Law of Social Relations: What Leads to Cooperation and Competition in the First Place? 

Having had identified the effects of different types of interdependence on outcomes in groups and nations in his dissertation research, Deutsch began to wonder about the conditions that would generate these types of interdependence. In other words, having shown that cooperation leads to more constructive group processes and outcomes then competition, he wondered what conditions would lead groups to cooperate versus compete in the first place? Here, Deutsch turned his full attention to the study of conflict, as he saw it providing the ideal conditions to study “mixed-motive” (cooperative and competitive) situations, which had the potential to move in either a cooperative or competitive direction.

After conducting many studies over about a decade of research on conflict in his lab at Columbia, Deutsch identified a general pattern in the data, which he came to call his Crude Law of Social Relations.  It read, “The characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship.” In essence, Deutsch discovered that cooperation has a tendency to induce more cooperation in the future, and that competition induces more competition. In other words, the effects of cooperation in groups (like more openness, helpfulness and trust) and of competition (like poorer communication and more coercion and suspicion) were in fact the same conditions that gave rise to them in the first place. This is what we today call a reinforcing feedback loop where the effects of something increase the odds of it happening again in a self-perpetuating manner. Consequently, a competitive, win-lose approach to conflict tends to escalate it and rigidify the positions, leading to destructive processes and outcomes and negative expectations for future interactions. A cooperative, win-win approach tends to open up the conflict for exploration of the root causes of the problems and leads to more constructive, sustainable solutions and more positive expectations for future encounters (see Deutsch, 1973).

Although technically there are no firm “laws” in the social sciences (such as the Law of Gravity in physics), Deutsch labeled this a “crude” law, because although the predicted effects were not always consistently evident, the findings from this research were highly robust. The Crude Law dynamics were subsequently validated through other research and through mathematical modeling (see Nowak, et. al, 2010), and today are known as one of the first cases of studying self-reinforcing social dynamics in psychological research on conflict – an approach much more prevalent today with the advent of computer simulation modeling. 

Mort Deutsch was an intellectual giant with a true moral compass, on whose shoulders many in the fields of peace, conflict and social justice stand today. The foundation he has provided for our work is sound, lasting and ultimately promising and optimistic. His insight, passion and commitment today live on in all of us.

ENDNOTES

Deutsch, M. (1973). The resolution of con?ict. New Haven, CT: Yale Press.

Nowak, A., Deutsch, M., Bartkowski, W., & Solomon, S. (2010). From crude law to civil relations: The dynamics and potential resolution of intractable conflict. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 16(2), 189.

Biography


Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation), gender discrimination in organizations, the mediation of inter-ethnic conflict, ripeness in intractable conflict, conflict resolution & difference, and on the conditions which foster the constructive use of social power.  Professor Coleman recently co-edited a book entitled The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2000), published by Jossey-Bass and The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.



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