Cooperative groups are everywhere.


In almost all cooperative groups different members will have different knowledge and different abilities. Those members of the group who have more or better knowledge or abilities about the attainment of the group goals, or are better able to communicate, or who have more charm or charisma than other members of the group are likely to  have more influence than those with less. They will be leaders. The others will be followers. Leadership is variable with time and circumstances. So who the leaders are and who the followers are can vary with time and circumstances.

The leader-follower relationship is characterized by a greater flow of information from the leader to the follower and acceptance of that information by the follower than in the opposite direction — from the follower to the leader.

In an educational cooperating group, the leadership of the teacher, in having more knowledge than the students is essential to the function, the goal of the group — to produce educated students.

Sometimes the success of cooperative groups is decreased or limited by deficiencies in the leader-follower relations between members. But for now let’s focus on what’s happening when a cooperating group is working reasonably well.

In the teacher-students cooperating group, the group will be working well when the teacher has the relevant knowledge, can communicate well, and maybe has charm or charisma and is able to maintain the motivation of herself and she is able to increase or maintain the motivation of the students at a high enough level. The students must do their part in increasing or maintaining their motivation to learn, to accept the information, knowledge, being offered, presented, by the teacher. Critical to this is that the students must have already been prepared by having acquired certain previous information and knowledge. The new information and knowledge being presented by the teacher is built on this previous information. New knowledge can only be accepted and acquired by a person if the person already has the foundation which the new knowledge can be connected to. A baby cannot say the words of a language until after it can make the specific sounds of the language. A student cannot understand (accept and acquire) algebra if he or she does not already understand arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). Any motivation a student has to learn some subject will be destroyed if the student does not have the required prior knowledge.

Students must also have their basic human needs satisfied if they are to be motivated to learn. If they are hungry or overfed, or too cold or too hot, or worried about their safety at school or at home, if they have a less than nurturing home environment, if they have severe enough mental or physical health problems, all these can be distractions and interruptions to their motivation to learn in school.

Basic human needs must be satisfied for all the members of any well-functioning cooperative effort, not just teacher-student cooperation. In almost any cooperating group some educating is going on simply because information flows are not equal between every pair of members. But it isn’t educational in the sense of acquiring formal knowledge, rather it often takes the form of instructions about how to do some specific things. Knowing the prerequisites can be important for members in any cooperative effort just as in formal education.

In the educational cooperative group the cooperation level could be improved by teaching the students (at the appropriate times in their development) about cooperation and motivation to cooperate. For example students should be taught to recognize when they don’t have the prerequisites for understanding certain ideas or subjects. Many student’s understanding of their difficulties in understanding something new is limited to something like “I don’t get it”,  when the real reason may be one or more of the following: 1) They don’t have the prerequisites maybe because they didn’t understand or they don’t remember the prerequisites from the previous year, or maybe they were absent a few days before; 2) Maybe they can’t hear the teacher very well; 3) Maybe they can’t see what’s written by the teacher; 4) Maybe their thinking and attention is interrupted by worries about home life, their friends, or any kind of worry or obsessive thoughts. If students were taught about their own motivations and attentions they might be better able to recognize the reasons they “don’t get it”, and thus be able to do something to “get it”, to understand, to comprehend what is being taught. There has been much research on education. I would guess that the above is known and practiced by many.  I present the above only as examples of a few things deducible on the basis of information flows and how knowledge is built up.

The basic military social unit is an example, in its ideal form, of a very simple cooperating group. One person — the leader — gives orders, and all the others obey (carry out without question) the orders given. In a sense there is only one mind at work here, that of the leader. The followers in this military unit are mere instruments of the leader. But no human group operates this simply. First the follower soldiers must understand and accept the orders. Sometimes they don’t understand. Sometimes they don’t accept. In the real world they may question the order, they may ask for clarification. So the order itself may be negotiated. In carrying out an order the followers must rely on their own knowledge and experience and there is often much give and take among the followers as the orders are carried out over time in the combat or other situation.  

Sports — soccer, football, baseball, basketball, boxing, ping-pong, hockey and much more — is a large area of human activity. Sports is often seen as conflict — fighting. Yet it is a major example of cooperation. In team sports each team is a cooperating group, and the two teams together (and with officials and spectators) form a bigger cooperating group, and leagues of teams form an even larger cooperating group. Competition — two or more individuals, or two or more teams playing “against” each other —following previously agreed upon rules of the game — is cooperation. Competition is cooperation. Conflict and competition are not the same. Conflict is fighting. Fighting causes — and intends to cause — injuries, physical and mental, sometimes death. Sports like boxing that in the past had an explicit purpose to cause physical injuries have in the present moved away from the intention to cause harm by changing the rules of the game and by use of safety equipment. So sports which were once conflict, either actually or metaphorically, have moved away from intending to cause physical harm to the participants. They are now competition, not conflict. Competition is a test, a procedure, to determine which of two or more individuals, or two or more teams, does something better. Who can get the highest score — the most points calculated according to some rules from the number of touchdowns, runs, baskets, etc.

Every sport has rules — explicit and carefully defined rules that all the players agree to follow. And when there are ambiguities in the rules or accidental or intentional violations of the rules, there are officials, judges who make the final decisions on the score, points lost or gained, etc. So sports is a cooperation because all the players, officials, spectators are working together toward goals — each team to get the highest score, each judge to make the correct decision, the spectators to observe and celebrate human excellence.

No cooperation is perfect. Cheaters exist and they sometimes get away with it undetected by the officials. But the rules of the games have been evolved (and officials added) specifically to deter cheating. So cheating is minimized. If there were too much cheating in any particular sport people would lose interest in it because it would obscure the goal of the competition — to observe and develop human excellence.

Sports is a good example of a kind of cooperation among humans that depends on carefully developed, defined, and refined rules that all individuals involved are expected to follow. We can call such groups structured cooperating groups. Actually all cooperating groups are structured more or less.

Previously we talked of cooperating groups in terms of information transfer back and forth, between and among the individuals in a cooperating group. Communication is essential to cooperation. Sports is an example where most of the communication (information transfer) is non-verbal. In sports most of the information transferred between and among the individual players is visual:  Locations of other players, location of the ball, direction of motion of other players and the ball, emotional information given off by body movements and tensions and facial expressions. None of this is verbal in either the mind of the sender or the mind of the receiver.

The corporation is another example of cooperation, more or less. Corporations are legal entities. They are defined by laws made and enforced by governments. They are — or are supposed to be — constrained by the laws (rules) applicable to the creation and operation of corporations. A corporation also has rules it makes up for itself — its purpose, the kinds of activities it does or will do, its methods, its structure (most likely hierarchical), and many more. There is great flexibility in what corporations can do and how they are organized. In this sense they are much less structured than a sports team. On the other hand, since the range of activities a corporation can engage in is so much greater than what a sports team can do, in this sense a corporation may have much more structure than a sports team.

Corporations have evolved from simple and very limited and constrained cooperating groups operating according to a specific charter (rules) granted by a king, to something a few individuals can create by filling out a few forms and paying some fees, to multinational corporations larger than some nations both in terms of the numbers of people in each and money (gross national products and gross receipts). Individual corporations (or small groups of them) influence and dominate national governments. (I don’t say “control” because “control” implies 100% and nothing is 100%. But the percent of influence is very large.)

To explore all the actual forms of cooperation that occur in modern corporations is a task beyond my abilities (and maybe any single person’s abilities). But much research has been done on management, organization, and group behavior in corporations. For now, I refer you to Daniel Goleman’s book “Working with Emotional Intelligence” from 1998.

The democracy of cooperation.

In the previous blog, 2JAN12, I said:

“Our formal democracy seems at present to be pretty much blocked for us. But in all societies there is an informal democracy of communication and cooperation which is much more important and which is the foundation of the formal democracy. Societies don’t work very well without it.  Our system now depends heavily this now worldwide communication and cooperation system.”

What is this “informal democracy of communication and cooperation”?

A number of people join together in order to work toward some goal or goals together. We can call this  a human group or a human organization. The individuals in the group are cooperating, more or less. It is more or less because nothing is perfect, cooperation is rarely 100% however cooperation is measured. Cooperation requires communication among the members of the group. They must all have more or less the same goal or goals. Working together requires communication to coordinate the group members’ activities, their behavior. So cooperation can never be perfect because communication is not perfect since information transfer always has a possibility of error, and understanding of goals will never be 100% alligned. So there are degrees of cooperation.

This then is the democracy of cooperation.

Humans are social creatures. We cooperate, more or less. How did we get this way? We became what we are now through two processes of evolution: biological and cultural, genetic and memetic. The biological, genetic evolution gave us our bodies and basic physical structure. The cultural, memetic evolution gave us our thoughts and ideas. Actually it is not as clearly cut as this because each evolution affected and affects the other. Cultural evolution could only build upon the capabilities biological evolution gave us. But also, cultural evolution fed back on and influenced the biological evolution of our bodies and brains. So it is really only one evolution where the biological, genetic evolution has morphed into the cultural, memetic evolution. Cultural, memetic evolution is occurring vastly faster now than biological, genetic evolution. Cultural evolution has overwhelmed biological evolution.

So, our biological and cultural evolution led to our cooperation in groups. Through science, technology, art — all human activities — cultural evolution continuously adds information and new knowledge for us to use. So our cooperation has much more information to communicate among the individuals in a human group. In a word, our cooperation, how we cooperate, is also evolving. Consider the speed, even the acceleration, of the recent evolution of corporations.

Since in order to cooperate a group of humans must communicate with one another, the size of the group and the locations of the individuals were constrained by the means of communication. For a long time the size of a group of humans working together, cooperating, was limited to that of a family or small number of related families — a clan or tribe — because they had to be able to speak to one another. This also required that the individuals be physically near each other.

Not any more. The individuals in a cooperating human group can be almost anywhere on the surface of the earth (or near earth in space). And the size of a communicating, cooperating group is no longer limited by the distance a single human voice can go before it can no longer be heard by another person. Note the Mic check of Occupy Wall Street. Nor is the locations of the individuals limited by the necessity of being physically close to a speaker.

So every human group has its informal democracy whereby the people in the group vote with their communications, their speech, and their actions, their behavior. Other members of the group receive these communications and observe the behavior of the other members of the group, and then react in one way or another. This ongoing evolving process influences the behavior of the individuals in the group and thus the resultant group behavior toward its goals. This is legitimately a kind of democracy.

Is this informal group democracy a “one person, one vote” system. It would seem to be unless there are some rules, some structure that the members have agreed to that would say otherwise. It is also true that in many even informal groups, some individuals often have more influence than some others. This can occur if some individuals have more or better knowledge about the goals or how to attain them, of if they can communicate better, or if they have more charisma, more charm, or by whatever combination of qualities more people listen to them than they listen to others. Similarly for some copying the behavior of others. Also some individuals for whatever reason do not choose to participate as much as others.

So we have identified two ways in which groups of humans can deviate from what we may call equality of voice or one person, one vote. First there are often leaders and followers. (Notice we can’t separate the two. There can be no leaders without followers. There can be no followers without leaders.) Second, the group may have agreed on some rules, some structures which allow more influence to some members than other members. For example a teacher in a classroom is a leader, the students are followers most of the time; A coach of a sports team is a leader, the players are followers, but also sometimes a player may be also a leader that other players follow; In a company organized in a hierarchy of units (for example some number of sections organized into a department, some number of departments organized into a division, etc.) the managers of the units are each leaders (or should be) with the other members of the units being followers, but like the sports team there can be leaders within the group of followers.

In many societies, in free societies, being a follower or a leader is almost always a voluntary action, since in the absence of promises otherwise (contracts), anyone can quit the group at any time. (Being a leader or a follower is not always a voluntary action because a person may not be aware that he or she is a leader or a follower, but they can still quit if they don’t like how the group is operating or they don’t have its goals.) A teacher can quit, the parents of a young student can send the student to another school, students can quit paying attention while remaining in class. A coach can quit, players can quit. Employees can quit their company, or quit in place just like students. A person can even quit a horribly authoritarian oppressive system, at least mentally, as some concentration camp members did in WWII. To quit the group is the ultimate no vote.

We still have the freedom to form new groups: Freedom of Assembly. We can form new clubs, associations, new partnerships, new corporations, for profit or not for profit. We can form new religions. The number of people in each and their physical locations are no longer limited as they were in the past.

If our present political/economic systems are not working for us, we can form alternate or parallel systems which do work for us. This indeed is what is already happening as more and more people are excluded from participation in our present systems through unemployment of all kinds, through lack of education, through poverty. People form co-ops of every kind and legal and illegal (black) markets. People form subcultures which exclude outsiders. People “turn on, tune in, and drop out” as Professor Leary said. One way or another people make other arrangements when the “official” systems don’t work for them. There are many, many possibilities. The occupy movement with its general assemblies and its internet dispersed non-physical form is a baby to be nurtured. And if this one doesn’t work out, there will be others.