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The coronavirus crisis confronts us with questions concerning common interest and self-interest. Do people and countries think of themselves or others? Research shows that while people are willing to set aside their own interests, most do so to help their own group.

The Netherlands has prioritised the common interest in complying with the coronavirus measures. Even healthy people must keep their distance. They cannot hug an elderly aunt or nip off to the beach when the weather is nice. We saw the usually so individualistic Dutch coming up with a range of good-natured initiatives, intent on offering practical or emotional assistance to other people, even ones who were strangers until now. Will this crisis bring us closer together?

Research on social dilemmas

It is evident from research on social dilemmas, in which self-interest is balanced with communal interest, that clear standards may benefit cooperation and that a common enemy may act as a cohesive factor. An invisible virus could be such an enemy.

Together with her colleagues, organisational psychologist Hillie Aaldering at the University of Amsterdam has further explored the conflict between individual and communal interest, by investigating the differences between cooperating for the own group and cooperating for a joint collective of groups. Their research suggests that people are much more willing to forgo their self-interest for their own group than for the collective interest of joint groups.

Experiments to study group interests

Setting aside your own interest to cooperate within a group not only benefits the members of this group but also affects other groups. This cooperation may either help or harm members of other groups. An example is the battle for scarce medical emergency resources, in which a successful purchase by one group may leave another empty-handed. Such a situation may influence the relationships between groups.

Aaldering and her colleagues conducted three experiments to improve their understanding of interactions within and between groups as well as to test interventions that may solve conflicts between groups. They introduced the Intergroup Parochial and Universal Cooperation (IPUC) game in two online experiments among groups composed according to political preferences. This part of the study focused on individual preferences for cooperation within the own group or for a joint collective of groups. The third experiment used a laboratory setting to test the influence of personality traits such as social values, social dominance, honesty-humility and empathic concern.

Greater interest of own group

According to the research, when people are balancing their own interest with the interest of the group to which they belong and the collective interest of joint groups, they are mainly willing to set aside their self-interest for the benefit of their own group. 'The reason most people focus on cooperating with their own group is that they expect reciprocity from this group. They are less confident that they will receive help from the joint collective of groups', Aaldering explains. 

The role of personality traits

Personality traits also turn out to play a role in choosing to cooperate for your own group or a joint collective of groups:

  • social values – pro-social people are more eager to cooperate. 'This outcome is interesting, because cooperation may involve either your own group or the collective interest. Our previous research has shown that pro-social people are mainly willing to cooperate with their own group, unless this cooperation harms another group. If so, pro-social people do strive to include the joint collective of groups', Aaldering added;
  • social dominance – people who believe that the structure of a society or organisation should primarily be based on social hierarchy are more inclined to help their own group, even at the immediate expense of another group;
  • honesty/humility – these traits promote cooperation with the collective of groups;.
  • empathic concern – contrary to expectations, the study showed that empathy mostly promotes cooperation within the own group. This may be because it might be a lot easier to empathise with members of your own group than with members of other groups, you may well be more willing to make an effort for the well-being of your own group. As Aaldering posits, 'this finding would mean that not all empathy is necessarily a good thing, since it may limit the scope of cooperation; especially in a crisis situation, when it is key to stimulate cooperation between groups.' She is currently conducting follow-up research on this topic.

International cooperation during current crisis

The current crisis shows the balancing of the own group's interest with the collective interest of groups.  Suddenly, 'common interest' takes on a whole new meaning: are all of us Dutch, European or global citizens?

'The key emphasis in such dilemmas should always be on the common interest of all groups combined. For all of us to overcome this viral enemy successfully, it is vital that we take a joint approach and cooperate in collecting as well as exchanging knowledge', Aaldering concluded.

Read more about the research

  • Aaldering, H., & Böhm, R. (2019). Parochial versus universal cooperation: Introducing a novel economic game of within-and between-group interaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11 (1), 36 – 45. DOI: 10.1177/1948550619841627
  • Aaldering, H., Ten Velden, F. S., van Kleef, G. A., & De Dreu, C. K. W. (2018). Parochial cooperation in nested intergroup dilemmas is reduced when it harms out-groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology114(6), 909-923. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000125
dr. H. (Hillie) Aaldering

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Work and Organizational Psychology