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Robb Willer: What Makes People Do Good?


Robb Willer: What Makes People Do Good?

How external factors pressure people to cooperate.
A colorful watercolor of energetic people interacting

There’s a tendency to think that generosity and cooperation are produced by internal factors like someone’s inherent altruism or empathy. However, less often discussed is how external factors actually pressure someone to be prosocial.

For example, says Stanford GSB professor Robb Willer, when a manager praises coworkers for pitching in to finish a big project on time, the team leader is setting up cooperation as the norm and rewarding the most generous team members. Regardless of whether these employees are intrinsically cooperative, the manager is shaping the group culture to be more prosocial. In a similar way, studies show people tend to be more generous to charities that publicly praise their donors, he says. Someone might give just enough to receive a “gold level” donation status, which suggests that the desire to achieve these titles is motivating their generous behavior.

In this way, social mechanisms can help create productive and amicable groups of people who work well together.

New research by Willer and University of South Carolina professor Brent Simpson outlines three social factors or mechanisms that promote good deeds: rules, reputations, and relations. Their paper also notes that each of these factors has a potential downside, too, Willer says. “People may come to feel that the cooperativeness and generosity that they are giving and receiving is purely a product of these external factors.”

As a result, the mechanisms can create ambiguity for the person performing the act and those benefiting from it. In the simplest of examples, an employee might be left wondering whether his colleague gave him a Secret Santa gift because of a company directive or because she actually wanted him to have the gift.

But even as they obscure others’ motivations and their character, on balance these mechanisms produce social benefits, Willer says. After all, even if donors are giving to reach that “gold level” status, in the end they are still funding an important cause.

Playing by the Rules

Rules that spell out norms and sanctions play a key role in promoting cooperation in groups. In one study, households provided information about the average electricity usage of their neighborhood reduced their usage to fall in line with the neighborhood norm from the proceeding weeks.

However, when rules are removed, studies find that people’s trust in others can be lower than it would have been had the rule never existed. People can become accustomed to the assurances provided by norms, and when they are taken away, some research shows that previously benevolent people become less cooperative and less trusting of strangers.

Avoiding a Bad Rep

Online marketplaces like eBay, Airbnb, and Yelp are driven in large part by users’ desires to maintain good reputations. Positive reputations indicate a history of cooperative interactions and therefore provide useful information about the person’s trustworthiness.

People may come to feel that the cooperativeness and generosity that they are giving and receiving is purely a product of these external factors.
Robb Willer

And, research shows that those with prosocial reputations are trusted more, they are cooperated with more, and they have more influence. They are picked as partners and group leaders more often. When prosocial reputations are rewarded, cooperative behavior increases.

The downside, however, is that people may become accustomed to having user reviews as a metric for reputation. They’re used to having an information system telling them whom to trust.

Connecting the Dots

Social networks also shape prosocial behavior. Cooperative people are the ones who are more often centrally located in a social network, extensively connected with other people. They demonstrate higher levels of commitment to the group.

Therefore, making outlying employees more central in workplace networks could encourage the social connections that lead to cooperative behavior. A manager could help develop more prosocial behavior in an employee by seating her with more networked employees or establishing mentorship with a more senior employee. Encouraging denser relationships within the workplace means bringing workers out of isolation and into the social network so they feel that their behavior has meaningful social stakes.

However, such dense social networks can also be detrimental to organizational trust. Group members wonder whether another’s cooperation should be attributed to the system, rather than the person’s intrinsic goodwill.

Be Authentic

“The more that any of these social mechanisms can be deployed in authentic, organic ways, the less likely people are to say, ‘Jane is only cooperating with me because she’s trying to get ahead in the organization,’ or because she’s networking, or because we’re in a very artificial team-building exercise,” Willer says.

For example, workplace social functions are less effective if initiated by the manager. What’s better are worker-established engagements set at times and places that are convenient for the team.

“People are smart and will notice if it’s just being done strategically or if it’s something you really believe in. They’ll figure out if it’s this is just a rule of my work place and this isn’t a value that’s sincerely endorsed by my coworkers and manager.”

Robb Willer is a professor of organizational behavior by courtesy at Stanford GSB, and a professor of sociology and psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University.

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