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Cooperation, co-operation, or coöperation[1] is the process of working or acting together, which can be accomplished by both intentional and non-intentional agents. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side, while in its more complicated forms, it can involve something as complex as the inner workings of a human being or even the social patterns of a nation. It is the alternative to working separately in competition. Cooperation can also be accomplished by computers, which can handle shared resources simultaneously, while sharing processor time.

For lessons on the topic of Cooperation, follow this link.

Cooperative systems

Cooperation, moreformally speak is how the components of a system work together to achieve the global properties. In other words, individual components that appear to be “selfish” and independent work together to create a highly complex, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts system. Examples can be found all around us. The components in a cell work together to keep it living. Cells work together and communicate to produce multicellular organisms. Organisms form food chains and ecosystems. People form families, gangs, cities and nations. Neurons create thought and consciousness. Atoms cooperate in a simple way, by combining to make up molecules. Understanding the mechanisms that create cooperating agents in a system is one of the most important and least well understood phenomena in nature, though there has not been a lack of effort.

However, cooperation may be coerced (forced), voluntary (freely chosen), or even unintentional, and consequently individuals and groups might cooperate even though they have almost nothing in common qua interests or goals. Examples of that can be found in market trade, military wars, families, workplaces, schools and prisons, and more generally any institution or organisation of which individuals are part (out of own choice, or by the force of law).

Cooperation vs. competition (Collectivism vs. Individualism)

While cooperation is the antithesis of competition, the need or desire to compete with others is a common impetus that motivates individuals to organize into a group and cooperate with each other in order to form a stronger competitive force. Cooperation in many areas, such as farming and housing, may be in the form of a cooperative or, alternately, in the form of a conventional business.

Many people resort to this because, they may cooperate by trading with each other or by altruistic sharing. Certain forms of cooperation are illegal in some jurisdictions because they alter the nature of access by others to economic or other resources. Thus, cooperation in the form of cartels or price-fixing may be illegal.

A few mechanisms have been suggested for the appearance of cooperation between humans or in natural system.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

Even if all members of a group would benefit if all cooperate, individual self-interest may not favor cooperation. The prisoner's dilemma codifies this problem and has been the subject of much research, both theoretical and experimental. Results from experimental economics show that humans often act more cooperatively than strict self-interest would seem to dictate. One reason for this may be that if the prisoner's dilemma situation is repeated (the iterated prisoner's dilemma), it allows non-cooperation to be punished more, and cooperation to be rewarded more, than the single-shot version of the problem would suggest. It has been suggested that this is one reason for the evolution of complex emotions in higher life forms, who, at least as infants, and usually thereafter, cannot survive without cooperating - although with maturation they gain much more choice about the kinds of cooperation they wish to have.

There are four main conditions that tend to be necessary for cooperative behaviour to develop between individuals:


  • The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02121-2
  • The Complexity of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod, Princeton Paperbacks, ISBN 0-691-01567-8
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (1990), second edition -- includes two chapters about the evolution of cooperation, ISBN 0-19-286092-5
  • The Seven Challenges: A Workbook and Reader About Communicating More Cooperatively, Dennis Rivers, fourth edition, 2005 -- treats cooperation as a set of skills that can be improved.
  • Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd, Ernst Fehr (eds.), Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (Economic Learning and Social Evolution). MIT 2005
  • John McMurtry, "How Competition Goes Wrong." Journal of Applied Philosophy, 8(2): 200-210, 1991.


  1. The third variant is now somewhat rare. This is a rare example of a diacritic not borrowed from any foreign language, but purely of English origin (compare the original French coopération). See the list of English words with diacritics for other examples

External links