The assumption that human beings are inherently selfish—interested in the greater good only when it serves their own interests—has long-influenced capitalism’s most prominent thinkers (Adam Smith, Alan Greenspan, Gordon Gekko) and served as a litmus test for modern America’s so-called political realists. Employees are best motivated with bags of carrots and a big stick. Without law there is no order, and without the threat of punishment there is no law. We’re all out for number one. Greed is good. Dogs eat dogs.

Just turn on the news anytime of the day or night. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

A compelling counter-narrative is emerging, however. In the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, Yochai Benkler points to “recent research in evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, political science, and experimental economics [that suggests] people behave far less selfishly than most assume.

“Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have even found neural and, possibly, genetic evidence of a human predisposition to cooperate,” he writes.

In the piece, “The Unselfish Gene,” Benkler, a Harvard law professor and author of The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest (Crown Business, 2011), aims to reach executives and managers who he believes must abandon traditional motivational strategies in favor of techniques that “rely on engagement, communication, and a sense of common purpose and identity.” Along the way, though, he points to scientific discoveries and psychological theories that will engage any reader who pines for collective solutions to common problems.

In one cited experiment revolving around cooperative behavior, for example, a majority of subjects consistently behaved cooperatively (some when treated reciprocally, others even when it came at a personal cost).  In another revealing set of studies, participants showed that traditional incentives, such as monetary awards and the threat of punishment, actually hampered productivity and discouraged engagement. This can be explained in part by neuroscience that shows that cooperation, when chosen freely, simply makes people feel good.

“No, we are not all Mother Teresa; if we were, we wouldn’t have heard of her,” Benkler says.

“However, a majority of human beings are more willing to be cooperative, trustworthy, and generous than the dominant model has permitted us to assume. If we recognize that, we can build efficient systems by relying on our better selves rather than optimizing our worst. We can do better.”

Source: Harvard Business Review