Voluntary restrictions on self-reliance increase cooperation and mitigate wealth inequality

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Humans are considered a highly cooperative species. Through cooperation, we can tackle shared problems like climate change or pandemics and cater for shared needs like shelter, mobility, or healthcare. However, cooperation invites free-riding and can easily break down. Maybe because of this reason, societies also enable individuals to solve shared problems individually, like in the case of private healthcare plans or private retirement planning. Such “self-reliance” allows individuals to avoid problems related to public goods provision, like free-riding or underprovision, and decreases social interdependence. However, not everyone can equally afford to be self-reliant, and amid shared problems, self-reliance may lead to conflicts within groups on how to solve shared problems. In two preregistered studies, we investigate how the ability of self-reliance influences collective action and cooperation. We show that self-reliance crowds out cooperation and exacerbates inequality, especially when some heavily depend on collective action while others do not. However, we also show that groups are willing to curtail their ability of self-reliance. When given the opportunity, groups overwhelmingly vote in favor of abolishing individual solutions to shared problems, which, in turn, increases cooperation and decreases inequality, particularly between group members that differ in their ability to be self-reliant. The support for such endogenously imposed interdependence, however, reduces when individual solutions become more affordable, resonating with findings of increased individualism in wealthier societies and suggesting a link between wealth inequality and favoring individual independence and freedom over communalism and interdependence.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number46
Pages (from-to)29202-29211
Publication statusPublished - 2020

ID: 248650271