We might say that the earliest social unit was the mother and child. Next would be mother, child, and father. Or maybe we should say that the earliest social unit was the mother and father, since at least chronologically these two had to cooperate to produce a child. What matters is the different examples of cooperation. In some cases cooperation is required by biology. Mother and father must cooperate. Then later mother and child must cooperate. Both cooperations must occur if the child is to survive. It might seem that mother-child is not an example of cooperation because of the great inequality, because of the helplessness of the newborn baby. But it is nonetheless cooperation. The mother must do certain things — feed the baby, keep it warm, safe from the weather. But the baby must do certain things too. It responds to and mimics facial expressions and sounds produced by the mother. It interacts with its mother to learn language and other behaviors. So this is indeed cooperation. Is it one person, one vote? Well, what are the votes here? The mother could vote “No” and walk away, and the baby will die. The baby might be defective in some way and not be able to make and maintain eye contact with the mother in which case if the baby survives it will be socially defective, with little or no language, little or no ability to communicate with other people. In the main form of voting in a cooperation — saying yes or no to an incoming chunk of information — accepting or rejecting the incoming communication, both mother and baby do it. As the mother teaches the child the facial expressions and bodily movements and sounds and words of the language, both say yes and no to the expressions of the other, to the information being offered by the other. This is the process of teaching and learning. So in this sense each has an equal vote. But even in this simple group consisting of two people it seems to make sense to say that the mother is a leader and the child is a follower because there seems to be much more information going from the mother to the child than from the child to the mother. In the beginning of the interaction, the cooperation, the mother has all the information (language, etc.) and after some time the child has acquired a lot of it. This characterizes the leader-follower relation as one of information flow from leader to follower. Now of course information flows back from followers to leaders, but the idea is that more information flows from leaders to followers than vice versa. And this information which flows from leaders to followers influences or directs the followers’ behavior — this information is accepted by the follower, it becomes part of the follower’s operational information.
So from the beginning already human cooperating groups will have had leaders and followers. This is not surprising since family and clan groups have people of many different ages, experience, and knowledge levels. And how could it be any other way since the groups we have in mind here must have the older members passing on the essential group information to the younger members if the group is to continue to exist as old members die off. These kinds of leader-follower relations are educational relations.
Are there other kinds of leader-follower relations in cooperating groups besides educational ones? Surely yes. What are some examples? Consider a group of men hunting animals to kill for food. Leadership might float depending on circumstances. The man who first see an animal they might go after, or the man who is closest to it might momentarily be transmitting much more information to the others than they are transmitting to him. So he is a momentary leader. Consider an individual in a group who discovers a new food (or anything useful to the group). She might be a leader for a while. Consider someone who more often than other members discovers new things. She might have more influence than other members of the group, not only with respect to the things she discovers, but in other respects as well — she becomes a more permanent leader.
Now, as we know, cooperation is a more or less thing. It is extremely unlikely to be 100% (perfect cooperation, whatever that might be), and if it would seem to be 100% for some period of time, it will deteriorate sooner or later. This is so for several reasons. 1) The goals of the group are not 100% understood and agreed on by all the members; 2) Communication has errors — the speaker may make a mistake in converting what she wants to say into what she actually says; her words may be distorted in transmission; and the listener may misunderstand what he hears; 3) The motivation of members varies with time.
Consider number 1) above. If the goals for the group as understood and accepted by all the members are similar enough, no big problem. On the other hand, big differences bring big problems. If some members of the group also have a personal goal of benefiting personally from the activities of the group (similar to the agency problem), then cooperation toward the groups goals, or at least the attainment of those goals may be diminished, compromised. Everybody has personal goals. Among these are having the human necessities to survive and develop oneself. The reason for cooperating in the first place was that by working together the members thought they could reach some common goals that would benefit them all. The ideal of a cooperating group then would seem to be to separate out, to keep aside, the personal goals of the individual members from the group goals. But, do you see the contradiction here? Each individual member must have a personal goal of working together with the other members toward the group goals. How to resolve this? It seems the analysis so far isn’t enough. We need to dig deeper.
Since each individual member of a cooperating group must have the goal of working together for the group goals, the personal goals of the individual members — if we want an effective group — must be consistent with the group goals, at least in the sense that if a member is working for one or more of her personal goals, that should not work against, it should not diminish or subtract from the effort or attainment of the group goals.
In other words, if cooperation is to be reasonably effective, personal individual goals and group goals must be compatible, consistent, coordinated, integrated. Is this possible? Yes, of course this is possible. This is proved possible by the fact that reasonable and quite effective cooperation has occurred in the past in every human culture and it is occurring now almost everywhere we look. We almost always do things with other people. We are hardly ever alone.
Clearly we can separate work toward our personal goals from work toward our group goals by time slicing. Example: You work for a corporation. Let’s say you work from 8 am until noon, have lunch at noon until 1 pm, and then go back to work for the corporation from 1 pm until 5 pm. Then you are working for the group goals from 8 am till noon, you are working toward your personal goal of surviving from noon until 1 pm, etc. Time slicing is not by any means the only way to integrate your personal goals and group goals so as to not diminish the attainment of either your personal goals or your group goals. It is often the case that working toward your group goals helps you attain your personal goals as for example when you are paid with money to work in a corporation and you can use that money to buy some of your human necessities like food. Working towards your goals of having enough human necessities (think of food, clothing, education, health) can help with the attainment of your group goals (think of a job). Actually you must have enough of the human necessities or you will not be able to work toward group goals such as in a job, or any other cooperative activity. If you are starving, if your health (physical or mental) is very poor, if you don’t know enough, you can’t contribute very much to almost any cooperating group.
So individual people most often can and do have compatible individual and group goals. And the individual members’ continuous voting — saying yes or no, accepting or rejecting suggestions from others in the process of working toward the group goals most often works well to steer the group toward the attainment of the group’s goals. This democratic process, this process of group members voting about their individual actions and the group’s actions and methods and sub-goals is how group thinking works. It mimics individual thinking. It can be better than individual thinking for the obvious reason that there are multiple minds working on the problem. It is most definitely parallel processing.
But it — this cooperative thinking and democratic processing — sometimes goes wrong. When and how does it go wrong? What are the conditions? What helps it go right?
OK, enough for today. Here are a few other questions I would like to address.
What are some recent changes in the evolution of our cooperation?
Is it always a “one person, one vote” system? And what does this mean?
There will almost always be some individuals whose vote — whose words and actions have greater influence on other members of the group than some other members. There will almost always be leaders and followers. So how do we avoid leaders who are self aggrandizing at the expense of the group? And how do we avoid lazy followers or “freeloaders”.
What about the agency problem — the problem of members of an organization (for example a corporation) who take resources out of an organization way out of proportion to their contributions through for example pay or theft or fraud?