Professional Help: 5 Ways to Get People at War to Start Cooperating

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Social psychologist Daniel Balliet shares his research-based recipe for harmony for warring partners, teams, and, of course, political parties.

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Though humans can be incredibly productive when they collaborate, they can also be incredibly stubborn when obsessed with their own self-interests.

Consider the recent U.S. debt-ceiling crisis. Last summer, many Republican representatives held this vote hostage to push their agenda, even though Congress had unceremoniously raised how much the federal government can borrow to pay its bills 72 times before. By standing their ground, they got the major spending cuts they wanted. It soon became clear, however, that there were no winners in this political game of chicken. The noisiest, most obstinate Republican bloc, the Tea Party, lost much of its popularity, and Standard & Poor downgraded the country's once-pristine credit rating.

Thankfully, social psychologists like VU University Amsterdam's Daniel Balliet have uncovered plenty about conflict resolution during such social dilemmas where individual or party interests clash with the greater good. For this week's Professional Help, he reviews past research, including his own recent paper in Psychological Bulletin, to come up with the perfect recipe for society during these divided times: five tips to help warring romantic partners, team members, and, of course, political parties to cooperate.

Talk about the situation. Research has shown that meeting up to discuss the social dilemma at hand increases cooperation. When participants in one study were allowed to express their desire to work together, not only were they more inclined to do so, they also felt guilty when they didn't. Moreover, don't rely on text or email. Another study found that written messages don't promote as much cooperation as face-to-face or video communication.

Reward people who pitch in and punish free-riders. Since social dilemmas involve a conflict between self-interest and collective interest, creating incentives for teamwork and penalties for unruliness may even the playing field and make cooperation equally beneficial for everyone. This tactic, however, tends to be more effective for social dilemmas that involve repeated interactions. For example, punishment may engender solidarity in a long-term employee, but might do little to a temporary hire.

Monitor reputations for cooperation. People want to come off as obliging and reliable partners because such an image pays off. Research finds that when people are negotiating with another person who they know has been generous toward others during previous interactions, they tend to be more inclined to take a risk and collaborate with that person.

When possible, keep group size small. Studies have shown that people tend to be less cooperative in large groups where they tend to feel anonymous and think that their efforts have little impact. However, if a big team is necessary, then try to make members believe that their behavior is critical for the group outcome and that they're accountable for their contributions.

Make the other party aware of the future. People are more likely to cooperate with those they think they'll meet again because they understand that a specific interaction is only one in many. Also, when you're dealing with selfish negotiators continually, communicate your intolerance of non-cooperation early on. Research shows that they'll always take advantage of the situation when they think they can.

Image: Patrizia Tilly/Shutterstock.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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