Cooperation and competition as values. | Brussels Blog

Cooperation and competition as values.

posted by on 10th Feb 2014

Originally on the Labour Party Group on LinkedIn

I trailed down to the University of Surrey [in December] for a seminar by Dr Tom Crompton, Change Strategist, WWF-UK. His talk was “Why Green Consumerism Sucks”. The email introducing it said

Mainstream environmentalism is dangerously obsessed with getting people to ‘save the planet’ while doing other things – shopping, looking cool, or just mindlessly getting on with life. Here’s why it won’t work, and why enthusiasts for green consumerism press on regardless.

I thought it relevant to an argument I was having with Leeds City Council: I want them to publicise more details of what makes up our individual carbon footprints. The Leeds answer seemed to be don’t tell people because it will make no difference.


I had read some of Tom Crompton’s work on the web which was about framing (in the psychological sense). I failed to get a clear enough message from what I had found but the sense of it became much clearer at the seminar. The main message I took was that individuals have several value systems which govern our behaviour and sometimes these work against each other.

Competitive and cooperative values

According to the theory (cf Schwartz?) there are two important groupings of values: intrinsic (e.g. community, affiliation, mature love) and extrinsic (e.g. power, wealth). To me these are better named cooperative and competitive values.

Tom reported an interesting experiment (can’t remember by whom) where experimentees were divided into three groups and given word puzzles. The first group were given ‘cooperative words’, the second group words about food and the third group ‘competitive words’.

The experimentees were actually paid.

Using cooperative words makes people more generous

The results of the experiment were not directly about the word puzzles but the question the researcher asked at the end: “I really need another session on this but I have run out of budget to pay you. How much time could you give to a further session next week?.

As I remember the result (I’ve lost that page of my notes), the ‘cooperative’ group offered twice as much time (on average) than the ‘competitive’ group. The neutral ‘food’ group were in the middle. The first group had had cooperation stimulated and were more cooperative. The third had had competition stimulated and were less cooperative.

Use cooperative concepts for campaigning?

For “Labour [to] deliver something that isn’t business as usual” perhaps we should look at these value systems. One of Tom Crompton’s points was that it might be counterproductive to promote cooperative objectives (in his case saving the environment) using competitive concepts.

The campaign he cited as an example was “save money while you cut your CO2 emissions with a better car”. The competitive (extrinsic) value (“save money for me”) was being used to promote a cooperative (intrinsic) message (“save the world for everybody”).

Cooperative values crowded out

The problem is that competitive values can crowd out cooperative values.

As a party and government, perhaps we have emphasised competition too much and cooperation too little.

Postscript: One of the most robust findings in social science

I’m shocked that at quite an old age, obsessed with policy issues and what drives them, I have never come across these ideas before. I’m glad my argument with Leeds Council (unfinished) drove me to this seminar. I shall be following up the Leeds argument and finding out more about this interesting and important field. I have just started with a few internet searches to find

Experiments show that extrinsic and intrinsic values act in opposition— placing importance on extrinsic values, for example, diminishes a person’s regard for intrinsic values, and reduces his or her motivation to engage in environmentally or socially helpful behaviour.

Crowding-out: Intrinsic and extrinsic values

I also found the TED talk Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation. (9,709,033 Views) Listen for “One of the most robust findings in social science and one of the most ignored.”

I learnt boolean algebra and Venn diagrams at 21 on a postgraduate course but now it’s for Key Stage 1 (6 t0 7 year olds). I should have learnt this at that age too.

The Leeds argument

I hope to return to my “Leeds argument” but in my discussions with Leeds Council I am trying to point out that the most effective way of cutting the carbon footprint of Leeds was to tell Leed’s citizens which of their everyday activities were carbon polluting the world and appeal to their values of cooperation. So far my message hasn’t gone down well – more of this later.

Postscript January 2017: Influencing Leeds City Council

I gave that project up muttering to myself that there are some good quotes in the Bible:

“Mark 8:18: Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not?”


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