Prisoner Dilemma: Cooperation

Cariere, the Romanian Leadership Magazine, asked me to share my opinion about the challenges during the pandemic. In my perspective, beyond all the concrete aspects of this crises, the question (and the answer!) is: are we going to work together or lose together. The never ending prisoner dilemma…

Ironical but true, in a study (Cohen, 2003), researchers gave to healthy volunteers drops containing rhinoviruses in order to see if there is a link between happiness and immunity system. After five days in quarantine, happy people showed greater resistance to cold.

This study is extremely relevant in today’s context. At all levels, from individuals to nations, we all want to be happy. This is the aim that humans pursued all along the humankind history (I). But the ways to get there brought us to the limit of the model (II), and the choices we are making today will dramatically impact the future (III).

The aim of mankind. A brief history of happiness.

Happiness and the art of well living is a 2 500 years’ quest. The Ancient Greeks talked about eudemonia, the good daimon, the guardian angel or the idea of being born under a lucky star. It was something that could occur but that could not be under our control. Still, from Ancient Greek’s perspective, it was possible to live a happy life.

The arrival of Christianism changed the debate as happiness could only be reached in the afterlife but certainly not on earth.

It is only in the Age of Enlightenment that we find again the idea of happiness, in Saint Just’s writings: “happiness is a new idea in Europe”. It is the time when the “quest for happiness” entered the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) as an unalienable human right.

But during the 19th Century, while the aspiration to social progress was growing, a strong wave of criticism against this quest sow the light. Unhappiness looked more authentical. The pursuit of happiness, perceived as upper-class’s will to access the comfort, was by consequence despised.  Flaubert is giving a very ironical definition of happiness: “Being stupid, egoistic and healthy: these are the three conditions to be happy. But, in case the first one is missing, everything is lost.” Then, another wave of criticism even more radical arrived: eventually, the pursuit of happiness does not take you anywhere as the happiness is only linked to the individual sensibility (Schopenhauer) or to social and economic conditions (Marx) or because happiness is an “episodic phenomenon” (Freud).

The 20th Century dramas made the European intellectuals even more pessimistic. The question of anxiety became central in their writings (Heidegger and Sartre), and the pursuit of happiness became an anachronism as an utopia. But the big political ideologies showed their inaptitude to make the world better and failed. By their fall, they ruined the faith in progress – foundational myth of modernity – the pursuit of happiness came up again.

Ways of reaching the goal. The limit of the model.

The world did not arrive to the limit of its model today, because of the pandemic. We were already in font of a paradigm change. Progress has brought the liberation of physical work and natural phenomena but it didn’t stop atrocities. New ideologies missed their objective of making the world a better place and the socio-economic context became more complex. The beautiful machine that we created started escaping our control.

Digitalization. Sometimes we have the feeling that we are in Matrix because of the overactivity, overinteractivity and the human is becoming a productive and consuming entity. By becoming a demiurg, we have the feeling that we can solve any problem. Except one… the most important.

Yuval Noah Harari brings a very interesting argument: “for the first time in human history, technology makes possible the monitoring of everyone. (…) if we do not pay attention, pandemic could mark a turning point in the history of surveillance.” The accent being put on the private life.

Economy and ecology. From an economic perspective, growth is infinite. It is there for 12 000 years, since the Neolithic and, theoretically, there is no reason to disappear. Nevertheless, we are getting close to the limit of the model. If the other half of the humankind would achieve the same life standard as we do, which we all hope for them, the planet risks to remain without resources in a relatively short time. And the alternative solutions are still not there.

In 2019, European Union countries finished their natural resources quote on the 10th of May. Concretely, since the 10th of May, we lived on credit. A Blue Prize winner was saying that “the human ability to act goes further than his ability to understand. The result is that the civilization is fighting with a storm of problems caused by overpopulation, overconsumption, use of harmful technologies and major inequality.” Pandemic is only accelerating a critical situation.

The invisible enemy. In 2015, Bill Gates warned us that “if anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war […] Part of the reason is we have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic”.

The choices we make today will impact the future. Cooperation.

As Yuval Noah Harari was saying, „Decision that people and governments are taking in the following weeks will shape […] not only our health systems, but also economy, politics and culture. […] The pandemic and the economic crises are global problems. They only can effectively be solved through global cooperation. “

But is this global cooperation even possible?

For so many years, mankind adopted the wrong pathway. Beliefs that people are selfish, cupidity is good, altruism is an illusion, cooperation is for suckers, competition is natural are only old ideas as science is demonstrating today.

Empathy. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other. Psychologists revealed that we are equipped for empathy and neuroscientists have identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling.

Compassion. Researchers Greene and Cohen of Princeton University found that when subjects contemplated harm being done to others, the network of regions in their brains lighting up are similar to those of mothers looking at pictures of their babies (Jack Nitschke). In an other study, when participants were given the possibility to help someone (Rilling & Berns, 2002) it triggered activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. A lot of studies suggest that we are naturally wired for empathy, compassion, trust, kindness, forgiveness, altruism and social connection. All that bring us enormous benefits along with the answer to the very problems that humankind is facing today.

Prisoner dilemma.

If we go back to where we started, namely that people, individually and together, are looking for happiness (intended as well being), I think the time has come to go back to the roots, to the true values. This is the only way to obtain a sustainable happiness on the long run with incredible benefits that go from health to prosperity.

Mankind is in front of the prisoner dilemma: are we going to cooperate or are we going to play alone with all the risks that it implies?

I strongly believe in our capacity of making the right choice and building happiness together.

Related posts:

Organizational Happiness
The Isolated Leader
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