Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Cooperation and Teamwork Build Intelligence

Mastering the ability to cooperate while competing.

In a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world, there is a knee jerk reaction to be aggressive and merciless as you claw your way to the top. But, history and current scientific research show us that being Machiavellian backfires in the long run and will derail your lifelong success. A fascinating new study titled “How Social Interaction and Teamwork Led to Human Intelligenceposted in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B discovered that brain size and the subsequent evolution of human intelligence is increased by cooperation and teamwork.

The ability to maintain and nurture a wide range of human relationships, which blend elements of cooperation with competition, takes practice and a lot of brainpower. There is extensive evidence from both evolutionary and developmental psychology that cooperation is socially rewarding for the individual as well as the group. This new study, led by scientists at Trinity College Dublin, illustrates that social interaction and teamwork is also rewarded on a neurobiological level.


One of the drawbacks of social media and Facebook is that it confines social interaction to a cyber vortex lacking real human contact, which is causing our brains to atrophy. Real-life social skills require the ability to ‘mentalize’ what the other person is feeling in the moment—to read cues from body language, tone of voice, eye contact...and predict what someone might say or do next. If you don’t continually engage in a wide range of face-to-face interactions the neural networks required for this skillset will shrivel. The same that is true in sports is true in life—use it or lose it.

The best example of how human interaction has been reduced to bare bones is represented by the “Like” button option on Facebook. A recent article in The Atlantic titled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” points out that even though most individuals would much rather get personalized messages, more and more of us are lured by the simple ‘thumbs up’ button to express our emotions. There is no room for constructive criticism, discourse or shades of gray in this arena. Everything becomes black or white. And, there isn’t even a ‘Don’t Like” button because we are trapped in 'filter bubbles' where our digital universe only includes people, ideas, and viewpoints that don’t make us uncomfortable. This deprives us of the enrichment our brains and bodies need to flourish and is causing us to short-circuit.

Before the social media revolution athletics was just one component of a very enriched social environment. Today, it may be one of the few times during the day where practicing the art of competition and camaraderie can be fine-tuned. You can take the lessons you learn about being both a competitor and comrade on the playing field back to your real life. This is one reason that it is critical for us as a society to continue funding and supporting athletic programs in our schools.

The ability to be simultaneously cooperative and competitive is an art form that requires practice and engages distinctive parts of your brain. In their landmark 2004 study, titled “The Neural Bases of Cooperation and Competition an fMRI Investigation John Decety et al isolated specific brain areas which light up on an fMRI when subjects are in teamwork mode vs. competitive mode. Our brains have very clear ‘On / Off’ switches when it comes to being ‘competitive’ vs. being ‘cooperative’.

Neuroscientists can identify specific regions of the brain that engage when a person flips from being a competitor to a cooperator. We all know the difference we feel towards an ally compared to a rival. The next time you are locked in an over-the-top 'take no prisoners' competitive mindset, try reciting the Golden Rule of "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You" and visualize regions of your brain linked with being magnanimous and cooperative literally being turned 'on'. This will counterbalance the unhealthy aspects of being hyper-competitive. And remember, being more of a teamplayer actually serves you and those around you in the long term and creates a win/win situation for everyone involved.

When I was competing in races at a world-class level as a triathlete I made the mistake of staying locked in an ‘Eat or Be Eaten’ competitive mindset that created isolation and a deprived me of social and intellectual connectedness. When I was training up to 9 hours a day my father would say to me, “Chris, there’s one muscle you're forgetting to flex and it’s going to shrink.” He was talking about my mind and he was right. My life was completely out of balance. My daughter had her first swim meet over the weekend. As much as I applauded her for her performance, it was also a perfect opportunity to remind her that it really doesn’t matter if you win or lose as long as you give it your best effort and learn something in the process.


Both individual and team sports can flex your brain’s ability as a social creature. You learn to be competitive and compassionate at the same time through sports. This is one reason that in a digital age it is more important than ever that young people are encouraged to participate in athletics. Team sports force human interaction by their nature. If you are doing an individual sport, try to find a workout partner and exercise at a "Conversational Pace".

I used to train at a level of intensity that made it impossible for me to talk while I was working out and it created a solitary vaccuum. This was necessary to become a world-class 'champion' but not the healthiest thing for my mental health and creativity. The dialogue you have with a friend on a walk or jog is always more fluid than when you are sitting still. Fresh ideas bubble up from your subconscious when you're working out and you connect the dots in new and useful ways. You realize why Steve Jobs liked to hold business meetings while walking and the Greeks created the Peripatetic school. Not only will you and your workout buddy be strengthening a friendship, you will be helping one another to fortify important neural networks linked with intelligence.

It is always going to be a tightrope walk between being an effective competitor and cooperator simultaneously. The art of balancing these ‘co-existing opposites' takes practice. Stay mindful of times when you are being too much of a cooperator—in that you become a door matt or lemming who sticks with the pack and blends into the woodwork... And, on the other extreme, avoid being a hyper-competitive steamroller who obliterates everything in your path and constantly craves the spotlight. It's a delicate balancing act.

Ultimately, The Athlete’s Way is not about trophies, standing on mountain tops, winning medals, or being ‘better’ than your competitors. It really is about what happens along the way. The connections to friends, family, and community matter most. Not only will nurturing these human bonds make you healthier, happier, and more intelligent—it will make you a better competitor, too.

More from Christopher Bergland
More from Psychology Today