How can social glue foster cooperation rather than competition?

By William Swann March 14, 2013 6 Comments

In an audaciously ambitious article, Whitehouse proposes a solution to three of the world’s perennial problems: (a) predicting, preventing, and resolving civil wars; (b) channeling social cohesion for the collective good; and (c) mobilizing a global response to economic inequality and environmental threat. The solution, he contends, is to buttress our understanding of something he calls “social glue.”

On the face of it, the core argument here seems plausible enough. That is, there is evidence that people who are identified or fused with groups are disposed to band together with other group members and make significant sacrifices for the group. Presumably, if one could expand the visions of group members so that they embraced “humanity” rather than their local group, the goals that Whitehouse laid out for us would be within reach. But how does one expand the horizons of group members in this way? Thus far, research has focused on the ways in which social glue fuels, rather than minimizes, divisions between people. For example, social identity researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that highly identified persons are biased toward the ingroup and against the outgroup, even when membership in the group is completely arbitrary. Similarly, the identity fusion literature has demonstrated that highly fused persons endorse fighting and dying for the ingroup against the outgroup. Such evidence suggests that social glue may contribute to intergroup competition and violence rather than cooperation and peace.

If I were looking for ways to make social glue foster cooperation rather competition, I might look in two places. Within the social psychological literature, Sheriff’s (1955) classic Robber’s Cave experiment showed that intergroup rivalry could be overcome by inducing rival groups to pursue the same superordinate goal. In a field experiment at a summer camp for boys, the researchers engineered a situation in which the only way for two groups of boys to achieve their goals was to cooperate with the rival group. Once the boys realized that they could achieve their own goals only by cooperating with a group they viewed as rivals, they set aside their differences and began working together. Soon, the barriers that had divided members of the two groups melted away and their relationships blossomed. Apparently, superordinate goals represent one means of fostering social glue.

For additional strategies for fostering social glue, I would look at Steven Pinker’s (2011) book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker argues that the rates of violence in the world have declined precipitously over the course of human history. He attributes this decline to several factors, the most important one being the rise of the modern state, which suppresses violence and settles disputes among its citizens. In this instance, the modern state does not directly foster social glue. Rather, by regulating behaviors that are known to foster suspicion, distrust, and violence, the modern state creates conditions that favor the development of glue among its members.

Pinker also identifies several additional methods through which societies have fostered social glue, including the empowerment of women, increases in literacy and communication, and the rise of international trade. Much like superordinate goals, these factors have produced increases in empathy and better understanding of members of other groups, both of which may foster social glue.

In Pinker’s scenario, then, the monumental changes he depicts came about through both indirect and direct strategies working together: strong government to prevent or punish destructive behaviors and social psychological processes such as super-ordinate goals that serve to bind people together. Working together, such processes may produce the social glue that encourage the better angels of our nature to emerge.


Pinker, S.  (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined.

Sherif, M. (1956).  Experiments in group conflict.  Scientific American, 195, 54-58.

Published On: March 14, 2013

William Swann

William Swann

Bill Swann is a Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His primary appointment is in the Social-Personality area of the Psychology Department, but he also has appointments in Clinical Psychology and in the School of Business. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College. Bill has been a Fellow at Princeton University and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He has also been elected a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. He has received multiple research scientist development awards from the National Institutes of Mental Health and research awards from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2010, he served as President of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology.


  • Swann is not the first to propose the widening of your in-group. I usually associate this view with Peter Singer’s expanding circle. However, from existing research on the evolution of ethnocentrism we don’t know an actual mechanism that would allow this expansion. Usually agents will pick the most restrictive groups (smallest possible in-group, biggest out-group) that they can, with the ideal being pure kin-selection. It doesn’t seem that we can simply expand our moral circle, and if a theorist says we can then he should provide a concrete mechanism that can be shown to be sound either mathematically or by simulation.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      We actually belong to multiple cooperating groups. A particularly interesting form of organization is when we belong to a nested set of groups, e.g.: family, locality, subethnie (regional identity), ethnie, and metaethnic group (e.g., all Sunni). So there is no contradiction between cooperating more closely with a smaller-scale group, but still being able to cooperate on other matters with higher-scale groups. All we need to do is to learn how to cooperate within the largest group, the whole humanity, to stop the wars. We haven’t got this far, but it is within reach.

      • I don’t understand what evidence you have for this belief, apart from “it’d be nice if it was true”. What mechanism do you suggest for promoting the generalization of ethnocentric cooperation to a setting with no out-group?

  • Hiroko Inoue says:

    The similar idea with Robber’s Cave experiment is the Contact Hypothesis (by Gordon Allport) in social psychology. In this hypothesis, one additional condition not mentioned in here besides the existence of superordinate goal and authoritative figure who direct the cooperative task is a common status taken by the competing groups. It is argued that the equal status, even if temporarily, taken by the competing groups reduces the prejudice or hostile feeling to the other group.

    In an experimental condition, having the groups of equal status is easy (–as the boys in the Robber’s cave experiment), but it is not likely in reality. This is often pointed out against the hypothesis, but usually competing groups (in-group vs. out-group) include different status.
    in reality, social glue may be fostered to some extent by having international trade as Steven Pinker points out, but the trade includes the relationship of an unequal exchange grounded on status differences. In particular in top-down attempt to foster social glue, already existing status hierarchy among groups would be another obstacle for reducing competitions and establishing social glue.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Hiroko, this is an interesting point, and it rings true to me. Any kind of inequality seems to be corrosive of cooperation, so inequality in status/prestige between groups should also be a barrier to establihing the bridging type of cooperation.

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