Cooperation is Behavior

Individual learning provides much of the scientific foundation of behavioral psychology.  A person’s actions are assessed in relation to the physiology, personal history, and current forces acting on her or him. Indeed, this approach to understanding behavior has led to major discoveries and applications of those discoveries to bettering people’s lives.

Just because behavior principles were developed through studying individuals does not mean that the principles apply just to individuals. What happens, for example, if instead of reinforcing the response of just one person, we require a coordinated response of two or more individuals for a reinforcer to occur? It is really important to remember that behavior changes when it is reinforced. An operant response can as easily a coordinated effort by more than one person as easily as it can be the effort of the individual. The behavior that occurs depends on what is required. In a classic demonstration, a test setting was arranged so that for each of two children to receive a reinforcer, they had to engage in the same task at the same time (placing a hand-held stylus in a hole on each child’s side of a console). Under these conditions, cooperation was high. If the children were allowed to receive rewards without regard to the behavior of the other child (called the co-actor in studies of this type), it is reasonable to expect that cooperation would disappear. There are many examples in everyday life where two or more people must work together to achieve a common goal. Sometimes attaining the goal constitutes the reinforcer, and at other times there are monetary or social consequences for working together to reach an end. Sometimes people have to do the same thing at the same time, as in the example above, but perhaps more commonly different people have to do a part of a linked series of events to achieve the goal.

Cooperation often is discussed as though it were a trait of the individual, rather than as the outcome of the reinforcement of coordinated activity. People are described as cooperative or not, turning what should be thought of as behavior into a characteristic of someone’s personality. Cooperation also often becomes an attitude, as in having a cooperative attitude about teamwork or the like. Cooperation is not in the person, it is in the ways in which a person’s behavior is related to the behavior of others. When cooperation is reinforced, it becomes more likely; when there are few reinforcers for cooperation, it is unlikely that people will work well together. A history of reinforcement of cooperation makes its appearance in new settings and with new people more likely, but even in the absence of such a history, arranging environments so that “everyone wins” by working together is a sure bet in developing cooperation. 

Much of our cooperative behavior occurs as the result of the natural arrangements that develop when completing a task requires the actions of more than one person. When cooperative behavior fails to develop, or develops less than optimally, it is important to remember that cooperation is operant behavior. It is shaped and maintained by reinforcement.​




Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.