PGS Dialogue: Tom Tyler, author of Why People Cooperate

As Princeton’s very own Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1913, “Power consists in one’s capacity to link his will with the purpose of others, to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation.” Our society relies on the principles of cooperative interaction, but what exactly motivates a person to “link his will with the purpose of others,” to work with someone else to achieve a common goal?

Psychology professor and PUP author Tom Tyler attempts to answer this question in his latest book, Why People Cooperate: The Role of Social Motivations. Examining cooperation in work organizations, neighborhoods, and political communities, Tyler challenges the idea that self-interest motivates individuals within groups and instead illustrates that shared attitudes, values, and identities foster cooperative human behaviors. Tyler’s argument suggests that cooperation is socially-motivated, rather than oriented toward obtaining incentives or individual advantage, which carries widespread implications for management of organizations and governance. Tyler specifically addresses the law enforcement perspective in his other PUP book, Why People Obey the Law (2006).

Tom Tyler recently discussed the ideas behind Why People Cooperate, and his plans for future research, in this brief interview with PUP.

How did you arrive at your field of research?

I have been studying compliance with laws for many years.  However, over that time legal scholars and social scientists studying the law have increasingly recognized that society benefits from a more active conception of the citizen.  We do not want people who simply follow the rules.  We want people who work actively with authorities to manage social order in their communities.  This increasing focus upon voluntary cooperation makes traditional models of deterrence increasingly inadequate.  Instead, we need to develop a more social model of motivation in which the focus is on creating internal attitudes, values and identities that support voluntary behaviors.  When people have supportive internal motivations their behavior is motivated by factors within the person and is not linked to incentives and sanctions in the environment.  And, as a consequence people infuse their behavior with their own particular competencies and knowledge leading their contributions to be more creative and valuable to the group.  This transformation in thinking has not only changed the field of law.  Similar changes are occurring in the social sciences more generally.  For example, in management there is a focus on voluntary contributions to the workplace (extra-role behavior), while participatory procedures and civic engagement have been increasingly studied in political science and public policy.  My goal in Why People Cooperate is to present a conceptual framework within which voluntary cooperation can be profitably studied across these arenas.  Drawing from management, law and politics I present a unified model of the motivations underlying such voluntary cooperation.

What is the most surprising finding in your research?

In my experience most people think that human behavior is motivated by material gains and losses.  This is certainly a message that is widely articulated by both scholars and policy makers.  So I think the most surprising message of the studies I review is that material gains and losses are not the primary aspect of people’s connection to groups, organizations and societies that shapes their willingness to cooperate.  Instead, it is people’ social connections to others – their attitudes, values and identity – that is motivating.  These social dispositions, in turn, are shaped by the policies and practices that people experience within the group.  If people believe that the group and its authorities and institutions are exercising authority fairly (procedural justice) and are motivated to do what is best for all of the people in the group (motive-based trust) they develop favorable dispositions toward the group and are more likely to engage in cooperative behavior.  The centrality of social motivations is often surprising to people who believe that people’s connections to others are rooted in a more instrumental framework of incentives and sanctions.

Where do you see your work leading you in the future?

In Why People Cooperate I present a general framework for understanding voluntary cooperation.  However, there are many issues within this overall model that need to be better understood.  One is when different socially-based dispositions are important.  In the book I distinguish among attitudes, values and identity and show that these motivations are important as a group.  However, future studies need to develop a more contextual model indicating the strengths and weaknesses of each type of social motivation under different circumstances.  Similarly, this analysis treats procedural justice and motive-based trust as parallel aspects of policies and practices.  However, it is likely that each is important under particular circumstances.  Again, further studies need to specify their relationship more clearly.  Further, we need to develop better models which specify the antecedents of procedural justice and motive-based trust.  The best available model, the relational model of procedural justice, does a good job of explaining both procedural justice and motive-based trust, but does not adequately identify elements that are unique to each.  As a consequence it is difficult to design strategies focused upon building one or the other.  Instead the general strategy employed in current research is to engage in a broadly based effort to strengthen both.  Yet, procedural justice and motive-based trust are found to distinctly contribute to defining social dispositions, suggesting that each has unique antecedents.  These various suggestions accept the basic premise that social motivations are central to voluntary cooperation and elaborate the dynamics of a social motivation based model.

Like Princeton Global Science? Subscribe to our RSS Feed here:


  1. Christina L. says:

    Great Q&A! Very insightful.

  2. I think it’s only on a very basic survival level that people care about material wealth. Most material wealth building is about impressing social connections, and hence cooperation