March 23, 2018

Intelligence is the key to a cohesive and cooperative society

Intelligence is the key to a cohesive and cooperative society

Rather than personality traits like agreeableness, conscientiousness, and trust, intelligence is the key to success, according to a new study

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Minnesota, and Heidelberg conducted a series of games with 792 participants in behavioral labs in the US and UK to determine the factors that lead to cooperative behavior when people interact in social and workplace situations.  

“We wanted to explore what factors make us effective social animals,” said Eugenio Proto, a Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol who has previously written for IZA World of Labor about the productiveness of happy workers. “In other words, what enables us to behave optimally in situations when cooperation is potentially beneficial not only to us, but to our neighbours, people in the same country or who share the same planet,” said Proto.

The games played during the experiments contained a set of rules that assigned a reward to two players depending on their decisions. The results reveal that intelligent individuals, although not inherently more cooperative, have the ability to process information faster and to learn from it. Such stark differences were not found for those that scored highly in agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Further analysis was conducted to see whether the more intelligent people used their cognitive abilities to take advantage of others or for the common good. It was found that the smarter individuals helped to teach those who were less smart, leading them to eventually increase their cooperation rate by the end of the experiment. This behavior was beneficial for all involved: on average, everyone earned more. So, having a few intelligent people in a group or the workplace can benefit others.

The findings have potentially important implications for international trade and for policy in the education sector. “The core principle of working co-operatively and seeing the bigger picture also applies to international trade, where there is overwhelming evidence that free trade is a non-zero sum game i.e. all parties could benefit,” says Andis Sofianos, another of the study’s authors. While a focus on intelligence in early childhood would also be important to enhance not only the economic success of the individual, but the level of cooperation in society in later life, believes Sofianos. 

Read more articles on how trade policy and education affect labor markets.

Eugenio Proto’s IZA World of Labor article, “Are happy workers more productive?” can be found here.