The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America

By Peter Turchin June 21, 2013 49 Comments

Tomorrow I head for “Sci Foo” at the Googleplex. I proposed a discussion session there, “Are We Becoming Less Cooperative? If So, Why?” and I’d like to use today’s blog to help me formulate my ideas for this session. So here it goes.


The title of this blog is a paraphrase of a 1995 article by Robert Putnam, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” Robert Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard who over the last 20 years has been documenting the decline of ‘social capital’ in America.

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Putnam has argued, in particular, that last several decades saw lower levels of trust in government, lower levels of civic participation, lower connectedness among ordinary Americans, and lower social cooperation.

This is a puzzling development, because from its inception the American society was characterized, to an unusual degree, by the density of associational ties and an abundance of social capital. Almost 200 years ago that discerning observer of social life, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to form voluntary associations and, more generally, to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but several indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.

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Published On: June 21, 2013

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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  • JayMan says:

    Very interesting…

    • Lei Gong says:

      I have an untested theory that at least some of the decay in cooperation has been spurred on by the suburbanization of America. As T. Greer points out, these attitudinal shifts have a generational component, and I think it’s plausible and possible that those raised in the more insular and spaced out blocks of surburban homes simply have a developed different attitudes, beliefs, and practices about trust, cooperation, and civil participation.

      • Peter Turchin says:

        On the other hand, we have been more connected by social media. There was a discussion of this point at Sci Foo – I’ll expand on it in the next blog.

      • Lance Manion says:

        Compared to people living on rural farms in the 19th century, you mean?

  • Jurhum says:

    Hypothesis: A great power can only extract resources from beyond its national borders until other states catch up in economic/military terms, which is quite easy these days given the way science is currently done. This either closes off areas where other great powers emerge, or reduces freedom to exploit as the budding great powers enter the game.

    An increase in the state’s inward focus and internal coercion follows, which leads to increased elite competition, inducing a contraction (or slow decline) characterized by loss of colonies and military overstretch, then either state collapse, military defeat by other great powers or revolution.

    The current crop of American elite might be beyond saving now that the state has started looking inward, which spells increased competition, not less. The American way of life is simply unsustainable, no amount of elite cooperation can solve that.

  • T. Greer says:

    Peter, a query:

    One of the over-riding points hammered in and rigorously proven in Bowling Alone is the generational nature of these changes. The old WII vets and their generation did not become less civic or cooperative in tandem with economic inequality – they stayed cooperative and civic to their deaths. Each generation has a distinctive profile, the general trend being that each has less friends, less civic duty, more malaise, and less trust than the last.

    Does your model have a specific generational component to it?

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Apologies about a delayed response. But, yes, I have a general age-structured model that traces how social moods wax and wane. This will show up in the draft of my book on demographic structural analysis of American history, which I hope to post in a month or so (well, initially I promised to post it a year ago… but this time I am working full speed on it – stay tuned).

  • vdinets says:

    From the graphs it looks like changes in inequality follow the (opposite) changes in cooperation, not the other way around.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I never said that changes in inequality are the causal factor in the unraveling of cooperation. Rather, both are a result of other, deeper dynamics. Some of it is explained in my Aeon article, but a fuller explanation is forthcoming in the book I am finishing up on structural-demographic analysis of American history.

  • szopeno says:

    My idea: as the cooperation grows, and people trust more each other, this creates easy opportunities for sociopathes and other social parasites to exploit the rest of the society, which increases inequality. Then crisis comes when parasites are too numerous and too powerful for the society to function properly. Crisis wipes the wealth and limits parasite growth. As parasites are cleaned out, general trust increases.

    Inequality, IMO, is just the symptom, not the cause.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I agree that inequality is more of a symptom, than the cause. It’s part of a whole complex of demographic, economic, social, and political variables, and the complex goes up an down in cycles. This suggests there is a dynamical mechanism, such as the one you sketched out above, that underlies the cycles. I have a somewhat more invovled explanation, based on the structural-demographic theory – see my Aeon article for details:

    • As someone who’s worked years in the prisons of California, I can attest to some support for this. There is a massive high-security prison population, and believe me– you are happy that they are in prison.

      It’s extremely expensive, but the bright side is I can now walk in parks at night in the Capitol city Sacramento and there are no aggressive teenagers hanging around.

      I have basically never been bullied by criminals in that city.

      This might be in the trough of what you are describing, where the parasites have been collected, but trust is still yet to start growing again.

  • Rick says:

    I want to suggest to you an explanation. The cooperation and social activism abundant throughout American history was fueled by one of the most thought out designs for a moral government ever created: the constitution. These codifications for the administration of our nation were no mere guidelines, and the framers, our “founding fathers,” were clear that the powers of government afforded and described were exhaustive rather than inclusive. For a good century no threats or fads we moved through resulted in a significant effect on cooperation and social activism because we adhered to a set of lofty and admirable ideals. Local communities were left to make social decisions which the federal government had no right to decide, rather than a court of nine only addressing issues like gay marriage after pressure builds. Individuals could easily make an impact through local human channels that treated them as neighbors rather than with cold standardized forms and indifference. The men representing these communities recognized that although they sought the benefit of their constituents, they foremost had sworn an oath to uphold the contract and ideal of the American government. In the past 50 years the constitution has been stomped into the ground. Abuses through willful refusal of intent, e.g. the general welfare clause, the commerce clause, and even “commander in chief” have led to a nation where one man can declare war, one assembly of men holds market regulation powers never intended, disdain for those who would question the system, and the destruction of the lives of heroes who fight this encroachment. Is it any wonder trust and cooperation is so low when we have taken our foundation and made it as malleable as quicksand?

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Rick, there are two reasons why this cannot be an explanation (it is at best a part of explanation). First, as I mention in the blog and show in my academic publications, these processes are cyclic. Your explanation may fit one of the trends (the most recent), but what about other trends, and trend reversals? Second, why was the constitution stomped in the ground in the last 50 years?

      • The Constitution was stomped into the ground because the elites, corporations, control the major media. The only 4th estate is now on the internet, which the elites fear. As an example, on 9-11-01, there were many reports by firemen, Governor Pataki, newsmen, employees of the management company, that there were many explosions and that the towers appeared to have come down because of controlled demolition. By 9-12, there were no more reports of explosions. The 911 Commission Report said nothing about explosions.

  • phil says:

    It strikes me that the US Constitution is more effect than cause.

    It’s just too darned easy to invent attractive stories in a search for causality. If cooperation is dropping, is it due to the death of self-employment (and the small family farm)?… urbanization?… cultural diversity?… some sort of resource depletion?…economic cycles?… technology?…population mobility?…decrease in atomic families?

    What I find most interesting are the opportunities for prediction.

    I could be convinced otherwise, but the notion of using public policy to drive something like this strikes me as a chimera.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Absolutely right. You cannot establish causality by correlation, especially when you have just one data point. See my recent blog on this:
      However, my research on cooperation in America is embedded in a much larger research program of social evolution and cliodynamics. The American project, in fact, is serving as a testing ground for theories developed for other historical societies. Look through this blog and on my web page for more.

    • Wood says:

      Umm, are you really just giving this info out for nohngti?

  • Joe says:

    The article intentionally avoids the obvious – multicultural societies become non-cohesive over time. Homogeneous societies are simply more cooperative. The idea that cultural diversity within the same geographical area is an inherently good thing is nothing but an article of faith. There is massive evidence to the contrary but its ideological adherents are as difficult to convince with science and logic as any religious fundamentalist.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      The blog is about empirical patterns, not explanations. Getting to a cooperative equilibrium in multiethnic societies is harder than in monoethnic ones. There are both theoretical reasons why this is so, and empirical research supporting it (e.g., Robert Putnam’s recent research). I have written about this in my academic publications. This does not mean that multiethnic societies cannot be cooperative, you just need to work harder at it.

  • Apparently no one wants to talk about this, but this is an immigration problem. The elite consensus is that immigration is good for America. It’s certainly good for the elite… and tragic for everyone else.

    Take a look at the charts over at Polarized America ( The correlation between immigration and polarization is little short of overwhelming (r = 0.90).

    If we want a less polarized country, we can have one. Just close the border for 50 years. Sadly, the forces of greed (cheap labor exploitation) and evil (racial / ethnic special interest groups) think we need more immigration, not less.

  • j2bryson says:

    Dear Peter, Sorry to ask probably two obvious questions, but

    1) have you done an academic review article of this, or do we need to cite the forthcoming book?

    2) you look at income disparity — have you looked at any other comparisons of aspiration / perceived wealth? e.g. average cost of raising a child vs. income, probability of having a house as large as your parents’ when you have children?

    We’re working on a model for explaining “cross cultural” variation in public goods investment, but if it’s right it should work across time as well as across borders.


    • Peter Turchin says:

      Hi, Joanna –

      1. Right, this will be a part of the forthcoming book – I should be posting the complete draft in a month or so.

      2. I’ve looked at some. For example, the age of first marriage appears to be a good proxy for social optimism. But other indicators you suggest would be very interesting to take a look at. Have you found data on these proxies? The relevant literature here would be Easterlin/Macunovich.

  • chris says:

    To me, some of these charts indicate that political careers are becoming far more important than creating a better future for the electorate.
    The solution begins with one term in Congress in one lifetime.

  • pohaku1 says:

    The disappearance of cooperation is not strange from my viewpoint. To me the causative effects are quite obvious and have been for the last 40 years or so of my life. I have been witnessing the breakdown and disappearance of human culture in my lifetime. What perhaps is now called human culture is in actuality the absence of human culture. Modern western culture is bereft of true higher purpose and has effectively lost its connection to the Living Divine Reality. The decay of this world will not stop until the fruitlessness of rule by ego only is recognized and there certainly is a question on whether we will effectively destroy this world before that happens. The old religions have lost their connection to the Divine Reality and so what we see them animate are politics, maintaining their status quo and organizational striving for self preservation only. No heroes will come from the old guard as that capability has been lost. In some sense science is the new religion and there is great belief by many that we can somehow figure it all out. That is nonsense. Everyone thinks there is some answer but truly it is only when all of your seeking has been frustrated that the possibility of fully human growth, culture and evolution is extant. Science is a useful tool but no more than that. Truly human culture is dedicated, inherently, to higher purpose and tools for making that happen are acknowledgment of our inherent connection to the Divine Reality, study, discipline and wisdom thus gained from those previous endeavors.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      This is too pessimistic. In history there are all kinds of turns. While we are now leaving through a downtredn in cooperation, and I am afraid that we have some troubling times ahead, in the past there were also trend reversal for the better. We just need to figure out what we need to do to turn things around.

    • X. says:

      I agree totally. That’s why I teach yoga and meditation. Without a grounding in a cognitive practice, humans tend to devolve into depression.

  • cwdz says:


    Have you watched the BBC documentary, “The Century of Self”? It is hard to see the loss of cooperation as a cyclical phenomenon when some of the basic forces which require cooperation have been totally changed, or eliminated.due to economic/technological developments. We live in a very different “society” with very different human relationships than existed in previous low-cooperation periods.

    It is a long, 4 parts, but I highly recommend watching it as I see it as an integral piece of understanding cooperation, empathy and idea of the self in society.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      As I discuss in my articles and books on Cliodynamics, history is fractal. Some processes operate on the scale of millennia, others centuries and decades. There is no question that the world has been changing as a result of technology, but that was not just over the last century – essentially, ever since the modern H. sapiens evolved. On top of that long-term trend there are aother cycles, including the secular ones my blog was about. Just look at the data, the trends are very consistent: first increase, then decrease. So the causes are other factors than the monotonic growth of technology. In any case, technology can either destroy or promote cooperation. It’s cultural mechanisms that drive these cycles.

      • cwdz says:

        I think you underestimate the scope of tech change in the last century; that it can in no way be related to tech change previous to that.

        A few generations ago, a farmer needed his neighbors to raise a barn, to share equipment and reap the harvest, or even to get news. That is no longer the case. Patience is not a virtue, by virtue of now being able to get anything whenever we want.

        That is a relatively new phenomenon. What used to be a problem of production, in which cooperation was required (to build stuff), has been turned on its head to now be a problem of consumption, where all problems are solved by buying more for yourself.

        That technological change has brought about the ability to immediately satisfy human needs and wants and so the organization of society is now less about cooperative production than individual consumption, which actually goes against cooperation. The documentary is a good view on that.

  • Rod Temple says:

    I don’t see anything strange at all about the disappearance of cooperation in America.

    I am listed on a Sex Offender Registry in the U.S. and I can tell you for certain that it destroys any desire for cooperation or civility with other U.S. citizens (except for people that you directly know to be good people). In fact, I believe being listed on such a Registry removes a person’s obligation to be a good citizen. People who support the Registries are enemies of the people who are listed on them.

    The Registries currently list around .75 million people so the lack of desire to cooperate or be civil is being indoctrinated into perhaps around 2 million people total. Maybe less, maybe more. But there are no excuses that the Registries have not been completely expanded to include all people who have been convicted of a felony (at least). So, there should be probably a few million more people listed on Registries and they should have all the same harassment laws directed at them that people listed on the Sex Offender Registries have. That should have occurred a decade ago and there are no excuses to prevent it from happening today.

  • Orthodox says:

    I would suggest Prechter’s theory of socionomics for some insight. Changing patterns in social mood affect cooperation. We also may be headed towards a peak in polarization, but you will not necessarily like what is coming if the country becomes less polarized. It is likely it will be accompanied by the largest war since WWII.

    I don’t think you can tease out diversity and immigration, they are combined to some degree. When the borders were shut, you see a rise in cooperation and a drop in income inequality. When the borders are opened, inequality rises along with diversity. An open immigration policy is literally an inequality policy because third world immigrants need a generation or two to assimilate into the native society. You also cannot take free trade out of the equation as an effect, in that nations with open borders tend to also have free trade, which impacts wages.

    Finally, there is destruction of freedom of association via feminism. Men can no longer form clubs or association exclusively for men, many “male only” places have been sued out of existence. If you think back in history, a lot of these organizations were male organizations. If men want a space of their own, they can no longer form a larger cooperative group, so they stick with small groups of friends. Which also helps exacerbate ethnic and racial tensions, since there’s less opportunity for social interaction. For example, today many men have left television and moves for video games, but now there is a push for more female game designers, complaints of sexism, etc. It is like men are not allowed to have their own place in society, and that is very destructive to cooperation among men.

    • X. says:

      Go on There’s plenty of “mens’ groups” on there. Join one in your locale. Easy. Done.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I have encountered Prechter’s Socionomics, and I have had discussions with the adherents of the theory. I am far from being convinced. The statistical approaches lack rigor, so there is a big question of separating signal from noise. Most importantly, there is no believable explanation of the mechanisms that drive the purported dynamics.

  • asdfasf says:

    Here’s a radical theory utterly heretical but blindingly obvious. People are hopelessly and pathologically narcissistic. Culture of Narcissism was written decades ago. Have you gotten the memo? People are self-absorbed and exploitative. Quaint concepts like religion, cooperation, friendship, romantic love and altruism no longer work. Basic agreements and cooperation in a sane framework become impossible in this environment. The commonalities that bind (religion and ethnicity are gone other than narrow regions), so the atomized self rules.
    You want to “bowl” in a bowling club? Are you weird? How do you talk to these strangers from a different world? Is he making six-figs? I;m not; I feel like shit. Is he making a pass at me? What’s funny about the “Bowling” story is that my step mother had an affair with a guy in her bowling club. So, basically, you can’t bowl without worry about your wife banging a high scoring bowler.
    This is a hobbes view of all-against-all where family, love, religion, nationalism are all destroyed. You are utterly idiotic if you think this collapse was incidental and not organized or by design. In a society ruled by cultural marxists, this kind of collapse is intended and designed. Social chaos is not a by product but a sought after goal by government, educational institutions.
    The rise of narcissism and collapse of morality were all intentional in a “long march” through the institutions. For an example of this in “real time” see the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood who rapidly undid any secular Egyptian organization within a few months. Our long march took decades.

  • Peter, there is no point writing a book on this subject. You will encounter hatefacts which render your book unpalatable to modern society, or you will be forced to weasel your way around a reality that is staring you in the face. Maybe in another time or another place your efforts would be appreciated(and I most certainly would), but exploring all the reasons for the decline in co-operation(you’ll no doubt be interested in Japan, which is an incredibly co-operative society despite all their many economic problems) will leave you a societal outcast.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      The topic is too important, so I will have to take my chances. I’ll do my best to avoid becoming an outcast…

      The case of Japan is not quite as straightforward as many portray. I am by no means an expert, but it’s not just economic problems. There is pervasive political corruption. The Fukushima disaster has exposed a really ugly underbelly of the Japanese society and polity. I say this while remaining an admirer of Japanese language, culture, and martial arts (I had been a devotee of judo for a big chunk of my adult life). But the Japanese society is in deep trouble, and its ability to cooperate has been unraveling.

      • spandrell says:

        Japanese society has been this corrupt for decades (centuries?), it’s not particularly getting worse. Where do you get the signs of unraveling?

        You can’t talk of lack of cooperation without talking of ethnic diversity and its effects. And if you do, you will be Watsoned. Unless your surname is Putnam, of course, then they can cut you some slack.

  • Miguel says:

    Hmmm, what started changing around 1965 demographics-wise. People are seemingly willfully ignorant in the name of political correctness.

  • Eugene McCreary says:

    The last vestiges of our society as a cooperative endeavor went out with Jimmy Carter. Anyone who was alive and a thinking adult during Reagan’s era will recall that the whole dynamic, the whole message subliminally sent out from our leaders was, get to the trough first and get as much as you can. Subsequently government became not simply an enabler of financial corruption but an active tool of it.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      This is what the structural-demographic indicators say. The breaking point, indeed, was the Carter administration. Interesting that it was a Democratic administration. But it was more similar to the following Reagan era, while Nixon years were more similar to the Johnson era – according to SD indicators.

      • Richard says:

        Due to Carter or Watergate?

        Possible Watergate (showing the venality of elites) followed by Iran (showing the impotence of elites).

  • David C Fischer says:

    You are saying some very important things, about which I have thought about frequently over two or three decades. Being candid, I have attributed the unraveling of society to government intervention. For example, the phenomenon of warehousing parents in old-age facilities, instead of the care that their children used to provide, I have attributed to social security and medicare, which leaves younger generations less financially able to support their parents’ (because of taxes imposed) and at the same time seeming to make caring for the aged the responsibility of government, rather than their offsprings’. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous accurate prediction that AFDC would break up black families.

    Government regulations intended to impose “fairness” or safety in various areas of human activity replace judgment, discretion, and nuance with rigid one-size-fits-all legalisms, and concepts of right vs. wrong are reduced to legal vs. Illegal. Saying things that make life pleasant, such as complimenting another’s attractiveness at work, or repeating at work a joke heard on a TV show, can result a lawsuit, and a six-year old boy that hugs a female fellow

    offspring. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous correct
    prediction for which he was accused of racism

  • David C Fischer says:

    You are saying some very important things, about which I have thought about frequently over two or three decades. Being candid, I have attributed the unraveling of society to government intervention. For example, the phenomenon of warehousing parents in old-age facilities, instead of the care that their children used to provide, I have attributed to social security and medicare, which leaves younger generations less financially able to support their parents’ (because of taxes imposed) and at the same time seeming to make caring for the aged the responsibility of government, rather than their offsprings’. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous accurate prediction that AFDC would break up black families.

    Government regulations intended to impose “fairness” or safety in various
    areas of human activity replace judgment, discretion, and nuance with rigid
    one-size-fits-all legalisms, and concepts of right vs. wrong are reduced to legal
    vs. Illegal. But there would reasons why, at common law, such distinctions were made and maintined. Saying things at work that make life pleasant, such as complimenting another’s attractiveness, or repeating at work a joke heard on a TV show, can result a lawsuit, and a six-year old boy that hugs a female fellow female first-grader or makes a gun with his index finger and thumb is expelled from school.

    Our civil legal system treats our courts as venues for entrepreneurism, if not casinos, rather than government coercive dispute-resolution organs of the last resort. Interestingly, incivility among litigators has become a matter of significant attention within the bar, one of the few examples of public- mindedness that the bar has exhibited. In any case, i consider it intriguing that lawyers have been mentioned so frequently in these blogs, as i consider a
    subset of us, namely, trial lawyers, central to the zeitgeist leading to our societal unraveling. At this point, the blogs are limited to noting the
    association, rather than attempting to show a causal relationship.

    At any rate, having made my speech, my thesis, that expansion of government and judicial do-goodism and intervention in inter- personal relationships frwys the social fabric seems undermined by Peter’s observations of cyclicality in the pheomenon, so I lookbforward to further study and explication.

    association, rather than attempting to show causal relationships.


    offspring. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous correct
    prediction for which he was accused of racism

  • I would like to see how this article reads if it was researched by replacing political with the rise of corporate power. Corporations are what spins the world now…. Ever since the end of the Eisenhower administration.

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