A new Canadian study finds that highly cooperative and generous people can sometimes attract hatred and social punishment in competitive circumstances. But when social competition is at a minimum, cooperation tends to increase.

Psychology professor Dr. Pat Barclay from the University of Guelph in Ontario said some people like to bring cooperators down a peg, especially if they think the good guys make them look bad in the workplace, boardroom or other organization.

“Most of the time we like the cooperators, the good guys. We like it when the bad guys get their comeuppance, and when non-cooperators are punished,” Barclay said. “But some of the time, cooperators are the ones that get punished. People will hate on the really good guys. This pattern has been found in every culture in which it has been looked at.”

The researchers found that cooperative behavior attracted punishment primarily in groups whose members are very competitive with one other. This was found to be the case even when punishing or devaluing the do-gooder reduced the benefits for the entire group, including the punisher.

Being suspicious, jealous or hostile toward individuals who seem better or nicer or holier than us appears to run deep in the psychological makeup of humans, Barclay said. However, without competition, cooperation increased, according to the findings.

“What we are looking for in this research is, what are the psychological mechanisms that play into this?” he said. “Why are people built in such a way that they will react against that overly generous person, and want to bring down the person who appears too good?”

Anthropological evidence from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies suggests a similar social phenomenon prevented excellent hunters from dominating the group, Barclay said.

“In a lot of these societies, they defend their equal status by bringing down somebody who could potentially lord things over everybody else,” he said.

“You can imagine within an organization today the attitude, ‘Hey, you’re working too hard and making the rest of us look bad.’ In some organizations people are known for policing how hard others work, to make sure no one is raising the bar from what is expected.”

This same social behavior may work against people who try hard to protect the environment, which requires acting both individually and cooperatively for the good of all, Barclay said. For example, people who do nothing for the environment risk damaging their reputation, and may instead choose to attack the motives of environmentalists.

“It is a way of bringing those people back down, and stopping them from looking better than oneself in their attempts to protect the environment or address social inequality,” Barclay said.

“One potential benefit of this research is that by identifying and raising awareness of this competitive social strategy and what it does, maybe it will be less likely to work.”

Barclay conducted the study with undergraduate student Aleta Pleasant. Their findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: University of Guelph