The Key Difference in How Men and Women Cooperate

New research suggests men and women take different approaches to cooperation.

Posted Jan 19, 2021

Rawpixel / Pxhere
Source: Rawpixel / Pxhere

Do women cooperate better than men? Yes and no, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science.

A team of psychologists found that men, compared to women, were more likely to behave either extremely selfishly or extremely altruistically in experiments where people could either choose to make decisions that benefited themselves, benefited others, or benefited the overall good.

To make this more concrete, let’s consider one of the games analyzed by the researchers. Imagine that there are four players who are told they are going to play an economic game and are each given $20 to start. The experimenter tells each player that they have the option to contribute some or all of their money to a communal pot. The money contributed to the pot is then multiplied by 1.5 and divided equally between the four players.

What the players don’t know is how much money the other players in the game contributed to the pot. So, if everyone contributes all $20 to the pot, then the $80 collected is multiplied by 1.5, totaling $140, which is divided equally between the four players such that each player ends up with $30. This is the best possible result for the group as a whole.

However, you can see how selfishness and brinksmanship can come into play. For instance, if one player withholds contributing any money to the pot while the other three players contribute all $20, that player would end up with $42.50, as they would have kept their $20 allotment and then received one-fourth of the $90 communal payout.

To reiterate what the researchers found, they showed that men were more likely to fall into the category of “free riders,” or those who maximized their own benefit by minimizing their contribution to the group. But they were also more likely to fall into the category of “unconditional helpers,” or those who elected to help others even when such help wasn’t reciprocated. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to offer partial support, or to “conditionally cooperate,” in the experiments they analyzed.

So, it’s not that men or women are any more or less cooperative than one another per se, it’s that they choose to express their cooperative or uncooperative behavior in different ways. Men are more likely to take an “all or nothing” approach to cooperation, while women are more likely to be moderately cooperative across most situations.

This, of course, is just one of many gender differences that psychologists have identified in previous research. Here are a few others:

  • Women are better at recognizing facial displays of disgust
  • Men experience more loneliness earlier in life; women experience more loneliness later in life
  • Men spend more time relaxing than women
  • Men use more abstract language to communicate
  • Men tend to view their exes more fondly than women do
  • Men are more tolerant of same-sex infidelity

But what’s most important to remember is that we’re all much more alike than we are different. Returning to the issue of cooperation, perhaps the most interesting finding from this line of research is how eager people are to cooperate with people they’ve never met. And this is true of both men and women.

For instance, in simple economic games where someone is given, say, $10, and told that they can either keep all of the money for themselves or send some or all of the money to an anonymous playing partner, many people choose to “share the wealth.” Some people defy normative economic logic by sending half or even all of the money to their anonymous playing partner. It’s in our nature to cooperate. When we don’t, we suffer as much as everyone else.

References

Thöni, C., Volk, S., & Cortina, J. M. (2021). Greater Male Variability in Cooperation: Meta-Analytic Evidence for an Evolutionary Perspective. Psychological Science, 32(1), 50–63.