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The Art And Science Of Selfish Cooperation

January 4, 2010

In his illuminating book ‘The Social Atom’ physicist Mark Buchanan explores the idea that  human behaviour is akin to the workings of the atomic world – and that certain social ‘patterns’ inevitably dominate our interactions. Buchanan touches on ideas such as the rise of selfish genes and selfish cooperation and also on the building of trends, similar to the The Tipping Point by Gladwell.  Do marketing partnerships and alliances share similar ‘social atom’ characterisitcs? Why is it some people (and organisations) see smart cooperation as a way forward, whereas others remain isolated, suspicious and fearful of building alliances?

My large sack of xmas reading during the break combined some related themes this year; rational thinking; Derren Brown’s ‘Tricks Of The Mind’ and Bad Science by Ben Goldacre both show how foolish ideas can take hold. Is Swine Flu this decade’s Millenium Bug? Is man-made attempts to stop global warming just another version of medieval crusades? Why do so many Americans believe in alien abduction? Ah, social campaigns & movements inspired by religious leaders, politicians, blaggers,  bullshitters and scientists. Dontchya love them. But it was the rather tricky to read but rewarding ‘The Social Atom’ that made me think most. The chapter on ‘The Cooperative Atom’ was particularly good. The economist David Hume long ago pointed out that altruism and self interest mean that people will cooperate because both can benefit – but then dangerously seek to gain individual advantages can lead to disaster. Indeed, a failure to rationally cooperate can lead to disasters like the ‘Tragedy Of The Commons’. The key build that Buchanan notes is how frequent and the relationship is, this being a big factor in relationship success. Various ‘prisoner dilemma’ type games and puzzles show how when a relationship is seen as short term,that eventually, despite initial cooperation (which seems to be a biological / social norm) – people will seek to ‘win’ and therefore cheat the other. However- where a relationship is repeated contacts and activity, the behaviour tends towards what social biologists call ‘reciprocal altruism’. It’s good biology to be helpful and build friends and alliances as it makes it more likely you will prosper and survive. Ah. Now this is where it gets interesting for me. I have  spent nearly 20 years building deals and joint initiatives of somekind or other, from Licensing and content deals to pitching campaigns. I’ve had a few smart deals I’ve been very proud of and a few disasters too.  And a common thread in all of the various shenanigans is inevitably – TRUST. Like being a good buyer (‘never pay too little, never pay too much’) – one has to get the right level of trust in a marketing collaboration. Trust too little and the deal will die as no reciprocity and cooperation can build. Trust too much and the danger is that you will give away too much. Buchanan notes ‘ Repetition changes the logic entirely as it allows a discussion to take place between the parties. Each will continue to cooperate as long as the other does.Any attempt to cheat will promptly be punished.’ And he goes on to point out; ‘Take away any opportunity for repetition, for encounters in the future, and cooperation will wither like a flower in a waterless desert’. So what does this kind of thinking teach us? Firstly, the continued on-going contact and development of the relationship is not just a nice add-on it is fundamental to maintaining what you have. Secondly, building alliances and marketing collaborations is not just a smart way to get more from your resources (partnerships often maximise and extend the value you already have) – it seems that it fits our understanding of simply how the world (and people) work at a deep, fundamental level. Thirdly, making sure the other party gets value is not just being altruistic and generous -it is the way to get what you want.’ Groups endowed with altruists have out performed those without them’ – as Buchanan says. In today’s landscape the traditional boundaries are very, very blurred.Incredibly that modern sounding neologism ‘Coopetition’ was first used in the 1930’s not just the 1990’s. The ability to understand the value of special relationships, build trust and make sure that key partners receive enough value to still be interested in what you want – is more important than ever.

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Santa’s elves were busy at Amazon this year …

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