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Old 03-10-2008, 08:31 AM
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Cooperation

British sense of fair play proven by science
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

The British sense of fair play has been scientifically proven by experiments held in 16 cities which show that, by comparison, the Russians and Greeks thirst for revenge.

The idealised games held around the world have shed new light on the way in which people co-operate for the common good - and what happens when they don't.

The research published today in the journal Science shows that taking revenge is more common in relatively corrupt and undemocratic traditional societies based on authoritarian and parochial social institutions, where citizens think it is acceptable to dodge taxes or flout laws because criminal acts frequently go unpunished.

Economists are keen to understand the decision-making processes behind co-operation, as working together for the common good is crucial for progress in any society - not least for effectively addressing big issues such as recycling and tackling climate change.

The issue of how to make the public share responsibility for common problems such as climate change was most vividly illustrated by Prof Garrett Hardin, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in his influential 1968 paper 'The tragedy of the commons'.

He used the example of a public pasture. Each herdsman will add one cow after the other to a common field, because the benefit of an additional cow goes exclusively to the herdsman, but the cost of overgrazing is shared by all and the pasture will end up ruined.

"The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. "

Dr Hermann says: "There are numerous examples in everyday life of situations where co-operation is the best option but there are incentives to take a free ride, such as recycling, neighbourhood watch, voting, maintaining the local environment, tackling climate change, and so on. We need to understand why people behave in this way because co-operation is very strongly inhibited in the presence of anti-social punishment."

In a commentary in the journal Science, Prof Herbert Gintis of the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, confirms how: "Anti-social punishment was rare in the most democratic societies and very common otherwise.

"Using the World Democracy Audit evaluation of countries' performance in political rights, civil liberties, press freedom and corruption, the top six performers among the countries studied were also in the lowest seven for anti-social punishment. These were the USA, UK, Germany, Denmark, Australia and Switzerland."

He adds: "Their results suggest that the success of democratic market societies may depend critically upon moral virtues as well as material interests, so the depiction of civil society as the sphere of 'naked self-interest' is radically incorrect."

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