We evolutionary biologists over-enthuse at times about the competitive nature of selection. Observing animals in the wild often compels one to agree with the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that for most of history human life was “nasty, brutish and short”.
But Hobbes didn’t give people the credit they deserve. People in all societies work together to achieve more, collectively, than the sum of their individual efforts. Now, evolutionary biologists and economists are revealing, together, the basis of collaboration and the egocentricity that undermines some teams.
One recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London illustrates the role testosterone plays in our ability to work with others, confirming a common gripe shared by many undergraduate students.
Group work? Again?
University academics love to prescribe group projects. Students should get used to working in teams, we reason, because that’s how most of the workforce operates. Students – at least the hardest-working ones – suspect we prescribe group assignments to cut down on marking. They feel their conscientiousness and effort gets exploited by the more selfish, less organised or simply less engaged students.
That’s why teachers often have to teach students how to handle group dynamics and give them tools (sticks) with which to evaluate their peers' contributions.
Put simply, some people work better in teams – and make more valuable teammates – than others. For this reason, the ability to work collaboratively is probably the most sought-after property in job searches.
Being able to do it requires an ability to put aside one’s own narrow ambition in order to ensure the best outcome for the group or team. But great collaborators pay a price. Sink too much of yourself into a group effort and you could be exploited – so much so that you would be much better off going it alone.
To put this another way: everybody needs to find a balance between collaboration and looking after number one.
This subtle balance between collaborative and more egocentric urges falls under the influence of our hormones and the evolved way in which our tissues respond to them.
Much of our capacity to empathise with, trust and care for one another depends on oxytocin – the so-called “bonding hormone” or “cuddle chemical”.
A mother’s oxytocin surges as breastfeeding begins, stimulating the flow of milk to her nipples as well as intense bonding with her suckling infant. When we bond with a lover, with our families and even with our teammates and colleagues, our oxytocin levels spike.
American neuroeconomist Paul Zak has made his career studying oxytocin’s role in mediating trust, altruism and co-operation, and the positive economic effects that flow from trusting and trustworthy co-operation.
Zak and others have found people vary in their natural oxytocin levels and, as a consequence, in their trustworthiness and their capacity to be good team players. Zak also showed that people administered oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray become more trusting, more trustworthy and better collaborators.
So what makes a bad collaborator?
For some time, research has implicated the bad-boy of human hormones. Testosterone (or “T”, for physiologists or A-Team aficionados) has several functions, many of which involve motivating us to dominate others or at least compete against them.
Testosterone might make bad collaborators if it diminishes an individual’s motivation or ability to collaborate, but the effect might just as easily come through other effects on general motivation and performance.
Which brings us back to the new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.
The authors, led by University College of London neuroscientist Nicholas D. Wright, administered testosterone to a group of adults, and a placebo to others, and then asked them to complete a task in which they stared at some rather fuzzy looking patterns on a computer screen. The test subjects then had to report when a higher contrast pattern appeared.
When the difference in contrast was large, the task was easy, but when the difference was small, the task became much more difficult and many people made mistakes. Testosterone had no effect on how well participants completed this individual task.
Participants then had a chance to discuss the stimuli with an assigned partner from the same group – placebo or testosterone-supplemented. One member of the pair was then given the chance to revise their answer.
When both parties agreed, the decision was simple: stick to the choice the original test subject had made. But benefiting from collaboration requires a willingness to change one’s mind.
Collaboration improved the performance of the placebo group, but individuals from the testosterone-supplemented pairs not only failed to achieve this – they did worse than they did when working alone.
Testosterone-supplemented participants did so poorly because they weighted their own opinion much more highly than their partner’s opinion. According to the authors, “testosterone engendered more egocentric choices, manifest in an overweighting of one’s own relative to others’ judgements during joint decision-making.”
Improving team performance
For a long time, oxytocin’s importance in breastfeeding and pregnancy led to the belief its main functions were specific to women. In just the same way, we think immediately of men when considering the effects of testosterone on behaviour.
But many of the functions of testosterone are shared by both sexes. Interestingly – and I deliberately haven’t mentioned this till now – all of the subjects in the study done by Wright and colleagues were women.
It can be difficult when thinking about hormones and behaviour not to slip into stereotypes, but the tendency of the testosterone-supplemented women to overweight their own judgments and discount those of their collaborators might give us some insight into the ways men and women operate in team environments.
This study might – with appropriate care and the cautiously sceptical and open-minded approach that defines good science – help us understand more masculine and more feminine styles of collaboration and teamwork.
This, in turn, might help us understand how to engineer workplaces that draw on everybody’s strengths.