E.L. Thorndike Professor and Director Emeritus of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
I developed a theory of the effects of cooperation and competition upon what would happen in the interactions within the group. And it was very interesting research. It came out very well from my point of view because there were striking differences in the two kinds of groups.
A cooperative group was established by having every group member out of five people, be constituted as a little class, and I was the teacher. And I was giving them problems to work on such as, human relations problems or intellectual puzzles. And the cooperative group was told that their grade would be determined by how well the group worked together, and by the group's performance on the task. And if your group is the best group of the five groups that were working on the same kinds of tasks. They would all receive an A and the next best, all a B. And the competitor groups were told they would be graded on how much they each contributed to the class. The person that contributes the most will get an A, the person that contributes the next most will get a B, C, and so on. So they had different reward systems, different distributive justice systems operating on them.
One was more egalitarian, one was more of a meritocracy, but one was cooperative, and one was competitive. It was clear that the cooperative groups worked well together. They communicated openly and honestly. They developed trusting relationships with one another. They had friendly relations with one another. They were interested in enhancing one another, enabling the other to do well, to do as well as they could. And when they had problems working together, they tended to work on them in a cooperative way. They tried to influence one another through persuasion.
On the other hand, in the competitive groups there was a breakdown of communication. People didn't want to give the other people any information that was useful. So there was relatively little communication and a lot of misunderstanding that developed. There was much more suspicion and a lack of trust in their relationship with one another. They were interested in enhancing their own power and their own resources, and minimizing the power and resources of the other. And they were less able to work in an effective way using the different talents that each person might of had. And as a result the cooperative groups actually performed better than the competitive groups. That was an important, interesting result. Then I became interested in what determines whether a group of people will move in a cooperative or competitive direction. I started using what I called "mixed motive situations." When people would be brought together, they would be brought together in what might be called a bargaining situation or a negotiation situation, where they have a mixture of motives to be cooperative and where it would be to their mutual benefits to out with a good agreement. But they had opposed interests in regard to the nature of the agreement that they might reach. So in that sense, there was a mixture of cooperative and competitive interests.
At that point, it became clear that in a sense, that a way of thinking about it was not only in terms of cooperation and competition, but what determines the way in which people will resolve conflicts or negotiate in a constructive way, rather than in a destructive way. So I did a whole set of studies with my students, a lot of research of course, not just by myself, many students were involved, and some of them are very prominent people now in the field, they will be a the conference in Boulder. Basically I came up with a simple idea. From the first study, I came up with the idea that a constructive way of managing conflicts, was to have people working cooperatively. On the other hand, the competitive situation, when they had conflicts, they didn't manage them well, they tended to be win-lose situations. So I came up with this first principle, which is important, that a constructive way of managing conflicts is like having a cooperative, creative group working on a problem, where the problem is the conflict. A destructive way of handling conflict is having people see that they're in a sort of win-lose struggle. Either I win or you win, either I get the top grade, or you get the top grade. And that leads to poor communication. It leads to poor outcomes of the conflict. So that's a very important principle.