How to get past the people who always stand in your way

The notion that people strive to help others forms the foundation of research in what’s called “prosocial behavior.” Related to the framework known as positive psychology, the concept of prosocial behavior stresses the humanitarian motives that serve as the foundation for the way people behave toward each other. However, as you undoubtedly know from your own experience, there are people whose behavior qualifies as anything but prosocial. Rather than help you, they hinder your every move, both in deliberate and incidental ways.

Perhaps you think of yourself as a good planner. Ordinarily, when you decide to carry something out, it happens just the way you imagined it would. You’ve heard that a local group wants to help the children at an elementary school put on a play and decide it would be fun to join in and help out. The fun turns to frustration, though, when one of the group’s members constantly blocks all of your suggestions. No one else in the group seems to be at the brunt of this individual’s obstreperousness, so you’re beginning to feel that there’s something this person resents about you and your ideas.

Emotions and the Refusal to Cooperate

According to a new paper by Victoria University’s Michele Griessmair, collaborating with University of Vienna’s Patrick Hippmann (2022), there are many reasons that people decide to interfere with the smooth running of a group. Ironically, they may even begin with the best of intentions until something goes south. What causes the switch to flip?

Classic economic game theory emphasizes the thought processes that underlie an individual’s willingness to work cooperatively in a group. People make their decisions on a tactical basis, according to this view. Psychological game theory, in contrast, focuses on such factors as motivation, beliefs, opinions, intentions, and goals with emotions taking center stage. In their words, “experienced emotions are a major driving force of cooperative behavior in repeated interactions.” The most likely to lead to the demise of cooperation are anger and guilt.

Anger can emerge over time, the authors maintain, when group members become irritated by what they perceive as a lack of helping out. Conversely, guilt comes about when people in the group start to become concerned that they themselves aren’t cooperating enough, thereby impeding everyone else’s progress.

Emotions and the Three Types of Group Members

Over time, psychological game theory proposes that the balancing act between anger and guilt will determine whether individuals in a group become more or less likely to band together as they try to achieve a common goal. However, the exact ratio of anger to guilt can depend on which role an individual assumes in the group.

First, there’s the free rider, whose noncooperation amounts to sitting back and letting others do the work. These individuals shouldn’t be particularly prone to feeling anger. The second group is the reciprocators, who start to slack off when they notice the behavior of the free riders, but who still feel annoyed at what they see as a lack of group progress. Finally, the angriest of all will be the cooperators, who resent being forced to shoulder the load of the entire group. Guilt flows in the opposite direction. Free riders should feel most guilty, reciprocators even less, and cooperators should feel no guilt whatsoever.

These emotions don’t just exist within people’s inner experiences. According to Griessmair and Hippmann, emotions produce action tendencies, which are the behaviors that people enact in accordance with their feelings. The action tendency of anger, the authors point out, “is to retaliate against the individual(s) held responsible and restore justice.”

Guilt’s action tendencies are precisely the opposite. When the free riders and reciprocators feel guilty, they will “choose the action that benefits the group in the long-term rather than opting for the selfish, short-term gratification.” Furthermore, when people feel guilty, they will feel less of a need to retaliate and may even go out of their way to work on behalf of the group.

To test these predictions, the Victoria U.–U. Vienna researchers created a 10-round laboratory game in which participants had the choice of contributing some of their “20 points” toward a “public project.” Their contributions would either maximize their own payoffs or enhance the earnings of the group. The payoffs for each round of play were arranged so that the payoff for the group as a whole was maximized if each individual cooperated. At the end of each round, participants could see how much they and other group members contributed as well as how much the group and each individual earned. Guilt and anger were also assessed after each round of play.

Grouping participants by role based on their pattern of play, the research team could then test the emotional patterns across trials. As they saw the free riders grab the goodies without paying their fair share, the cooperators and reciprocators became more frustrated, leading them to express higher levels of anger. At the same time, they also felt less guilty, another finding in accord with predictions.

You might be wondering what leads people to be cooperators in the first place. Although the Griessmair and Hippmann study didn’t include measures of personality, the authors speculate that there may be differences in “dispositional affect,” a stable trait that represents the characteristic feelings people have in differing situations. The cooperators specifically may be high on the “moral emotions” of guilt and shame, making it difficult for them to slack off in any situation that involves a group effort.

What the Findings Mean for the Uncooperative in Your Life

Returning to the example of the play-planning group, it might occur to you that the person who seems to be opposed to you from the get-go hasn’t had a chance to formulate feelings of anger based on what you’ve done—yet. You haven’t had the opportunity to confirm or violate their expectations of your ability to help the group achieve its goals. For some reason, they’ve formed this opinion of you, perhaps because you showed up a minute or two late to the meeting. They may also be engaging in what Griessmair and Hippmann refer to as “emotional carryover,” having been burned before by your predecessors in that group.

To overcome these unfair assumptions will require you to make an all-out effort to show that you are the type who cooperates. Don’t let your resentment turn the situation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you do start to earn your place in the group, you may additionally be able to call on the moral emotion of guilt so that the individual begins to feel bad for putting you through so much grief. The gameplay experiment was deliberately arranged to present participants with standard rules and procedures. In real life, you have greater freedom to change the emotional parameters to work in your favor by simply sitting down and having a conversation with the other person before negative emotions completely waylay the process.

To sum up, not all people who give you constant grief will be amenable to a more pleasant way of interacting in a group, but by understanding the dynamics of cooperation, you may be able to find more fulfilling ways of working with those who are.


Psychology Today
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