Post by Brian Hickling
At our company, Barn Raisers, collaboration is core to what we do. After all, we bring people together in powerful ways to solve challenges for corporations and not-for-profits.
Recently, I came across some research on collaboration that sheds some light on just why we humans collaborate and how our version of collaboration compares to other mammals. It turns out that only humans are capable of what Michael Tomasello, an American developmental and comparative psychologist calls, “shared intentionality”.
According to scientists at the University of Warwick, they found that working together has its evolutionary roots in our nearest primate relatives - chimpanzees. Turns out, chimpanzees not only coordinate actions with each other but also understand the need to help a partner perform their role to achieve a common goal. However, it's the motive for their co-operation is really at the heart of the matter.
It seems that the chimpanzees’ motive to cooperate is to serve themselves to attain a goal. In other words, they are in it for the “Me”. They’re driven by how cooperating can help them.
Humans, on the other hand, are in it for the “We”.
The study found that “shared intentionality” cooperation is something only people do, according to Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. In his view, humans alone are capable of shared intentionality—they intuitively grasp what another person is thinking and act toward a common goal. He feels that this “We” ability launched our species on its extraordinary trajectory. It forged language, tools, and cultures—stepping-stones to our colonization of every corner of the planet.
According to Tomasello, it’s this “We” type of cooperation is what makes us human. He points out that Teamwork has been fundamental in humanity's greatest achievements.
Humans also have “Me” competitive tendencies. Tomasello’s research points out that humans are primates, and primates compete with one another,” But he explains that cooperation evolved on top of a deep-seated competitive drive selfishness.
In many ways, this is the human dilemma, the “Me” vs. the We.
In 1920’s Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist argued that children’s minds do not automatically acquire skills, but develop full human intelligence only through cooperative teaching and social interactions. This is why so many people advocate for early childhood education in a social environment.
In parallel chimp vs. children experiments, children as young as 12 months have no trouble understanding an adult pointing a finger at a hidden reward, however, the chimp did not pick up on this cue. Tomasello’s view is that to understand pointing, you must form a “we-intention,” a shared goal that both of you will pay attention to the same thing. Chimps don’t point because they don’t think in terms of “We.” They think in terms of “Me.” The chimpanzee world is egocentric: Every chimp for himself. “Cooperatively informing them of the location of food does not compute,” he says.
It’s true that Chimps (and other animals) in the wild do cooperate, they groom each other and hunt in packs together. But these behaviours don’t require the kind of “We” intention that Tomasello identifies. Grooming, he points out, is a tit-for-tat activity that merely requires two animals to alternate: Literally, I scratch your back, you scratch mine. When apes cooperate they are engaged in a group activity in ‘Me’ mode, not in ‘We’ mode.”
Tomasello has discovered that young children, by contrast, find that working together can be a reward all its own. In one experiment, adults deliberately dropped objects in the presence of babies of 14 months. The babies will crawl over to pick them up and hand them back. In another study using toddlers, experimenters whose hands are full found that toddlers would perceive the problem and then open doors without being asked and without being rewarded.
Theories as to why humans developed collaborating skills are varied. One thought is that because of dramatic climate change food became more scarce. We became less aggressive and more willing to share out of necessity and survival. Aggressive individuals, unwilling to cooperate, would starve and die out.
Collaboration also has a dark side. Collaboration has also lead to some of the evil and nasty things that humans do. Maintaining a collaborative social structure encourages us to shun outsiders and to discipline nonconformists. It fosters groupthink—the urge to stifle dissenting opinions in the interest of harmony and loyalty. Tomasello says. We form groups in which everybody dresses and talks the same way, “and anybody who intentionally doesn’t conform, we wonder: What’s wrong with them—do they not want to be one of us?”.
However, it is the more positive side of collaboration that I would want to leave you with. The collaboration that has lead to amazing human achievements. Human collaborations ability to crystallize knowledge in inventions and traditions is what so special and powerful.
As Tomasello so aptly pointed out, the way we work together is what turned the ordinary primate mind into an extraordinary human one.
We have seen amazing ideas, solutions and friendships come out of our one day Barn Raisers sessions and our Give Agency weeks. I now understand that people working together to find solutions in the spirit of mutual trust and generosity are a unique and special thing. Let’s celebrate our humanness by working more as a “We”.