Strategic interest and human emotions. The odd couple and cooperation

A brilliant text extracted from Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal.

I do not usually reference full-texts but, in this case, given the quality and interest, I include the complete extract from the book Primates and Philosophers by Frans de Waal.

“Consider two scholars who work in the same field but have never met. Suppose you are one of the scholars. You are writing a paper that offers you an opportunity to cite the other scholar. The citation isn’t essential; the paper would be fine without it. But you think to yourself, “Well, maybe if I cite this person, this person will cite me down the road, and this might lead to a pattern of mutual citation that would be good for both of us.” So you cite this scholar, and the stable relationship of mutual citation that you anticipated — a kind of “reciprocal altruism” — indeed ensues.

Now imagine an alternative path to the same outcome.While working on your paper, you meet this scholar at a conference. You immediately hit it off, warming to each other as you discuss your common intellectual interests and opinions. Later, while finishing the paper, you cite this scholar out of sheer friendship; you don’t so much decide to cite him/her as feel like citing him/her. He/she later cites you, and a pattern of mutual citation, of “reciprocal altruism,” ensues.

Top 3 Most Popular Ai Articles:

1. Cheat Sheets for AI, Neural Networks, Machine Learning, Deep Learning & Big Data
2. Data Science Simplified Part 1: Principles and Process
3. Getting Started with Building Realtime API Infrastructure

In the first case, the relationship of mutual citation feels like a result of strategic calculation. In the second case, it feels more like a case of simple friendship. But to the outside observer — someone who is just observing the tendency of these two scholars to cite each other — it is hard to distinguish between the two kinds of motivation. It is hard to say whether the pattern of mutual citation is driven more by strategic calculation or by friendship, because either of those dynamics can in principle lead to the observed outcome: a stable relationship of mutual citation.

Suppose the outside observer is now given an additional piece of information: these two scholars not only tend to cite each other; they tend to be on the same side of the great, divisive issues in their field. Alas, this doesn’t help much either, because both of the dynamics in question — strategic calculation and friendly feeling — are known to lead to this specific outcome: not just mutual citation, but mutual citation between intellectual allies. After all, (a) if you’re consciously choosing a partner in reciprocal citation, you’ll be inclined to choose someone who shares your strategic interests, namely the advancement of your position on major intellectual issues; (b) if you’re operating instead on the basis of friendly feelings, you’re still likely to wind up paired with an intellectually, since one of the primary contributors to friendly feelings is agreement on contentious issues.

That the guidance of emotions — of “friendly feelings” — can lead to the same outcome as the guidance of strategic calculation is no coincidence. According to evolutionary psychology, human emotions were “designed” by natural selection to serve the strategic interests of individual human beings (or, more precisely, to further the proliferation of the individual’s genes in the environment of our evolution — but for purposes of this discussion we can assume the interests of the individual and of the individual’s genes align, as they often do). In the case of friendly feelings, we are “designed” to warm up to people who share our opinions on contentious issues because, during evolution, these are people it would have been advantageous to form alliances with.”

Cooperation between odd couples

De Waal poses a direct relation between strategic interest and human emotions. Furthermore, he contextualizes it in the field of reciprocal altruism, which is the equivalent of cooperation for a biologist. Nevertheless, he shows us an ideal case when, in reality, there are usually diffuse areas. Most of the times there are no such strong emotional bonds or clear strategic interests.

A past written article was about “two different worlds”, the world of market rules and social norms one. In this article, we will link this relationships world duality (extrapolated to organizations) with the de Wall text. For that, we will use some charts, which allow us to link the two approaches.

Charts have the next structure:

  • X axis: Individual 1 with strategic interest, Individual 1 with emotional bond.
  • Y axis: Individual 2 with strategic interest, Individual 2 with emotional bond.
  • Z axis: It is the moderating variable, and represents the “degree of cultural similarity” (social norms). The var would someway gather the cultural similarity (social and organizational) between two individuals. Being 1 the máximum value of Z. Note: Not misunderstand this kind of similarity with the “agreement on contentious issues” mentioned by de Waal.

How can we measure “degree of cultural similarity” between individuals?

Before showing the charts, we purpose the next indicator in order to measure the “degree of cultural similarity.” We can use an indicator based on Hofstede’s five dimensions. Although it is usually used to measure intercultural variations, it could be extrapolated to individuals. Five dimensions are the next one:

  • Power distance: Describe the degree to which people in a country accept that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally.
  • Individualism vs collectivism: Individualism is the degree to which people prefer to act as individuals rather than as members of groups and believe in individual rights above all else. Collectivism emphasizes a tight social framework in which people expect others in groups of which they are a part to look after them and protect them.
  • Masculinity vs femininity: is the degree to which the culture favors traditional masculine roles such as achievement, power, and control, as opposed to viewing men and women as equals.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: The degree to which people in a country prefer structured over unstructured situations defines their uncertainty avoidance.
  • Long-term vs short-term orientation: People in a culture with long-term orientation look to the future and value thrift, persistence and tradition. In a short-term orientation, people value the here and now.

First scenario (A, z->1): High degree of cultural similarity

Let’s suppose a cooperation context within a multinational between profesionals who from different departments. They are physically located in the same building and also have the same nationality.

We are going to develop each one of the cases:

  • Case A: It is an ideal case in which exists a high degree of cultural similarity. The likelihood that a mutual emotional bond, in first iterations, will be maintained in the future is high. As de Waal said, to agree on the essential issues (although he was referring to intellectual issues) is one of the premises to get on well with someone.
  • Case B and D: In this case, one of the individuals has a high strategic interest, and the other one has a high emotional bond. As stated by Waal in his text, the situation will converge toward a mutual optimum. Furthermore, because of the existence of a high degree of cultural similarity, it is very probable the relationship moves to the case A. Even if it were not like that, it would be a stable state. Have you ever wondered why seemingly convenience marriages are capable of functioning?
  • Case C: Finally, let’s talk about the case in which two individual handle a mutual strategic interest. This case is dealt extensively in game theory, specifically with regard iterative games. In these cases perceived utility criteria are the key factor that dictate the health of the cooperative context. Until today, it has been showed the best strategy in these cases is tit-for-tat. Beyond game theory, cultural similarity creates a common context in which potential communication errors between people are not misunderstood.

Second scenario (A, z->0): Low degree of cultural similarity

Let’s go back to the Scenario A context but with light differences. The context remains int he field of cooperation between two multinational employees. But this time, they are physically located in different countries and have different nationalities.

We again develop each one of the cases:

  • Case A: An existed emotional bond at first iterations can go down if key cultural differences exist. If there is a lack of consensus on essential issues for each of the people, the risk of harming the cooperative relationship exists, although it is diminished by the emotional bond.
  • Case B and D: In the previous scenario we talk about the possibility of convergence towards the case A. Nevertheless, this scenario generates potential mismatches, so it is not extreme to think that there is a possibility the cooperation relationship ends in the case C with a lower degree of cooperation.
  • Case C: In this context (business one) the ideology of economic utility is predominant. Although there is a low cultural similarity, this is not determinant when you want to establish a cooperation agreement based on economic utility. As in the previous scenario, this case can be easily framed in cooperative games with iteration. However, the low degree of cultural similarity introduces a source of noise, so the cooperation context is more unsteadier. Tit-for-tat strategy is still the fittest one.

What role does neurology play in this?

When we talk about making decisions from a strategic or emotional point of view, we could think: “Well, are not we talking about the head or heart dichotomy?”. We would be right. Although in fact, it would be more correct to say we are talking about the dichotomy between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Our decision making is governed by our PFC (prefrontal cortex). Let’s talk a little more about the PFC:

  • The Prefrontal cortex (PFC): It is one of the latest evolved brain areas in neocortex. Its main function is to manage “executive functions”. It means, it is the one in charge, the one “makes the hard decisions when are the right decisions to make”. As far as we are concerned in this article, the PFC is divided into two parts:
  1. dlPFC (dorsolateral PFC): It is the decision maker of decision makers, the most rational and utilitarian part of our PFC.
  2. vmPFC (ventromedial PFC): It is where the evaluation of the impact of emotions in decision making is concentrated. It introduces the socialization variable and emotions into the equation.

In order to illustrate the operation of these two parts, suppose what would happen If we had either of the two silenced:

  • If a person had the dlPFC muted, decisions made would give many importance to instant reward, and would reject more attractive offers in the long term.
  • Conversely, if a person had the vmPFC muted, that person could make logical and cognitive decisions, but he would be unable to manage decisions, with social and emotional issues tied, in a right way

There are very well-known dilemmas regarding this dichotomy, for example, the trolley problem. We encourage you to think about the influence of the previous model on the decisions made in this dilemma.


  1. Talking about watertight compartments in decision-making between emotional bonds and strategic interest is an oversimplification. As we have just seen, at the neurological level, there are not independent behaviors. Two parts of our PFC interact with other parts of our brain. Thus, it would be more appropriate to talk about a preponderance of the emotional part regarding the more rational or vice versa.
  2. Generating an organizational cultural layer over the cultural heritage which every people in a society has, is fundamental in order to increase the cultural alignment. This approach moves the cooperation context towards the first scenario (A).
  3. In multinational organizations it is a much more complicated task, since organizational cultures must be coherent with national cultures. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why the organizational cultures of corporations are so similar. This “corporations common culture” may be a local optimum, or it may simply be a global optimum according to the world cultural context.
  4. When de Waal speaks of “agreement on conflicting matters” he refers specifically to intellectual issues. However, the scale of values of an individual on which generates “their conflictive issues”, is very rich in nuances. Although there are disagreements that may seem impassable, sometimes these individuals are still tied by other values, which could generate strong emotional bonds. One of the most explicit examples in the history took place in the course of First World War in 1914. During Christmas time of this year took place a spontaneous truce on the front line between the German army and the British one. In that truce there were exceptional circumstances for the approach to take place.
  5. The strategic interest of an individual does not have to coincide with the interest of a multinational. Consequently, part of that culture’s work is to align those interests.


  • Robert Sapolsky. Behave (2017).
  • Organizational behavior, 15th edition. Stephen P. Robbins (2013).
  • Robert Axelrod. Evolution of Cooperation, revised edition (2006).
  • Frans de Waal. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006).