Chapter 13: Competition and Cooperation in Our Social Worlds

Chesapeake Bay Watermen Question Limits on Crab Harvests

In 2001, the crabbing industry in the Chesapeake Bay was on the verge of collapse. As a result, officials from the states of Maryland and Virginia imposed new regulations on overfishing. The restrictions limited fishing to just 8 hours per day and ended the crab season a month earlier than in the past. The aim of the new regulations was to reduce the crab harvest by 15%, which, in turn, was an attempt to maintain the $150-million-per-year industry.

But many crabbers did not agree that their fishing was responsible for this collapse. They felt that poor water quality had killed off underwater sea grasses that made the natural hiding places for small crabs, leaving them vulnerable to predatory fish. Fisherman Eddie Evans believes that the solution for reviving the crab population was to give out more fishing licenses.

“We’ve got millions and millions of fish in the bay,” Evans said. “If we could catch more fish it could help the crab population.”

Because the number of bay crabs was declining at a fast pace, though, government officials and conservation groups said there was a need for preventive measures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed the overexploitation of crab stocks and felt there was definite justification for the changes. Bill Goldsborough, a fishery scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, supports the curb on crab harvests.

“I would say most sincerely that what is being attempted here is a comprehensive effort, a bay-wide effort, that for over two years has utilized the best scientific information in an attempt to improve the fishery,” he said.

But many watermen felt their own needs were being overlooked. The new regulations, they said, would undoubtedly hurt the livelihood of many crabbers.

“The crabbers are going to be hurt and a lot of them will fall by the wayside,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

On Smith Island, a small fishing community that is fully dependent on blue crab harvests, waterman Roland Bradshaw says that local incomes could fall by 25 percent as a result of the new regulations.

“This is our livelihood, this is my living. You probably might lose your boat or your home—either one,” Bradshaw said. “They’re persecuting us. For the watermen, this is it.”

One of the most important themes of this book has been the extent to which the two human motives of self-concern and other-concern guide our everyday behavior. We have seen that although these two underlying goals are in many ways in direct opposition to each other, they nevertheless work together to create successful human outcomes. Particularly important is the fact that we cannot protect and enhance ourselves and those we care about without the help of the people around us. We cannot live alone—we must cooperate, work with, trust, and even provide help to other people in order to survive. The self-concern motive frequently leads us to desire to not do these things because they sometimes come at a cost to the self. And yet in the end, we must create an appropriate balance between self and other.

In this chapter, we revisit this basic topic one more time by considering the roles of self-concern and other-concern in social relationships between people and the social groups they belong to, and among social groups themselves. We will see, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before, how important our relationships with others are and how careful we must be to develop and use these connections. Most important, we will see again that helping others also helps us help ourselves.

Furthermore, in this chapter, we will investigate the broadest level of analysis that we have so far considered—focusing on the cultural and societal level of analysis. In so doing, we will consider how the goals of self-concern and other-concern apply even to large groups of individuals, such as nations, societies, and cultures, and influence how these large groups interact with each other.

Most generally, we can say that when individuals or groups interact they may take either cooperative or competitive positions (De Dreu, 2010; Komorita & Parks, 1994). When we cooperate, the parties involved act in ways that they perceive will benefit both themselves and others. Cooperation is behavior that occurs when we trust the people or groups with whom we are interacting and are willing to communicate and share with the others, expecting to profit ourselves through the increased benefits that can be provided through joint behavior. On the other hand, when we engage in competition we attempt to gain as many of the limited rewards as possible for ourselves, and at the same time we may work to reduce the likelihood of success for the other parties. Although competition is not always harmful, in some cases one or more of the parties may feel that their self-interest has not been adequately met and may attribute the cause of this outcome to another party (Miller, 2001). In these cases of perceived inequity or unfairness, competition may lead to conflict, in which the parties involved engage in violence and hostility (De Dreu, 2010).

Although competition is normal and will always be a part of human existence, cooperation and sharing are too. Although they may generally look out for their own interests, individuals do realize that there are both costs and benefits to always making selfish choices (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). Although we might prefer to use as much gasoline as we want, or to buy a couple of new mp3s rather than contribute to the local food bank, at the same time we realize that doing so may have negative consequences for the group as a whole. People have simultaneous goals of cooperating and competing, and the individual must coordinate these goals in making a choice (De Dreu, 2010; Schelling, 1960/1980).

We will also see that human beings, as members of cultures and societies, internalize social norms that promote other-concern, in the form of morality and social fairness norms, and that these norms guide the conduct that allows groups to effectively function and survive (Haidt & Kesebir, 2010). As human beings, we want to do the right thing, and this includes accepting, cooperating, and working with others. And we will do so when we can. However, as in so many other cases, we will also see that the social situation frequently creates a powerful force that makes it difficult to cooperate and easy to compete.

A social dilemma is a situation in which the goals of the individual conflict with the goals of the group (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005; Suleiman, Budescu, Fischer, & Messick, 2004; Van Lange, De Cremer, Van Dijk, & Van Vugt, 2007). Social dilemmas impact a variety of important social problems because the dilemma creates a type of trap: Even though an individual or group may want to be cooperative, the situation leads to competitive behavior. For instance, the watermen we considered in the chapter opener find themselves in a social dilemma—they want to continue to harvest as many crabs as they can, and yet if they all do so, the supply will continue to fall, making the situation worse for everyone.

Although social dilemmas create the potential for conflict and even hostility, those outcomes are not inevitable. People usually think that situations of potential conflict are fixed-sum outcomes, meaning that a gain for one side necessarily means a loss for the other side or sides (Halevy, Chou, & Murnighan, 2011). But this is not always true. In some cases, the outcomes are instead integrative outcomes, meaning that a solution can be found that benefits all the parties. In the last section of this chapter, we will consider the ways that we can work to increase cooperation and to reduce competition, discussing some of the contributions that social psychologists have made to help solve some important social dilemmas (Oskamp, 2000a, 2000b).


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