Behavioral Micro-Foundations: Social Rationality and Sustainable Cooperation

In many societal realms, cooperation – the joint production of mutual benefits – is necessary to create valued outcomes. Cooperation can take many forms, and indeed many labels are used to describe it, depending on the setting. To give some examples: organizational citizenship behaviors, worker solidarity in the form of strikes or collective action, organizational support, or knowledge sharing all reflect variations of cooperation in organization settings. Social, emotional, or financial supports are forms of cooperation that are important both inside and outside of organizational contexts. For cooperation to emerge, those involved need to let long term benefits prevail above the temptation to realize short term gains, and they have to be willing to forego potential personal gain for the benefit of reaching a better outcome at the collective level. For cooperation to become sustainable these motivations need to be kept salient, otherwise chances are high that it breaks down due to external shocks or endogenous decay. Modeling the form, emergence, stability, and decay of cooperative relationships constitutes a third key ingredient of my research line.

The “puzzle of cooperation” remains one of the classical problems in the discipline of sociology, and much has been written about the antecedents, processes, and consequences of cooperation in different settings, like markets, families, organizations or society as a whole. Though these efforts have generated many insights, we currently observe a major revival of cooperation research. This revival is due to the persistence of empirical patterns that, according to the dominating economic “standard model”, qualify as irregularities: empirical studies observe high cooperation rates in conditions where the model would predict it to be highly unlikely, but they also see cooperation not coming about or breaking down in settings that are considered as highly conducive for cooperation.

These persistent irregularities, and recent advances in the fields of behavioral economics, evolutionary theory, and cognitive sciences have put severe pressure on the assumptions of the standard economic model of humans as selfish profit maximizing gain seekers. Cumulating insights from these different fields consistently point to social preferences as a strong, if not dominant quality of human nature. These findings clearly call for a replacement of the standard model by a framework that is better able to systematically incorporate these recent insights. A paradigm that attempts to do just that is the emerging social rationality framework. It provides the necessary theoretical micro-foundations to develop social mechanism explanations at the macro-level of societies, the meso-level of organizations, and the micro-level of individuals and groups. Contributing to the development of the social rationality framework is the fourth main ingredient of my research. More specifically, in this context I contributed to and further develop two fundamental micro-mechanisms: goal-framing theory and (relational) signaling theory.