Why thinking as a team is more important than ever

The rationality of collective thought, not individual reasoning, is fundamental to addressing modern crises.

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Economists, philosophers and other students of the human condition often find themselves puzzled by the general public’s readiness to cooperate. Why do so many of us wait in line, support community projects, vote in elections and generally do our bit as good citizens? What’s in it for us?

From the self-centred perspective of economic rationality, this kind of public-spiritedness can seem irrational. After all, if the others are going to cooperate, then your contribution won’t be needed; and if the others aren’t going to cooperate, then your contribution won’t do any good.

In reality, people do cooperate much of the time – which is just as well, or we’d be in a nasty, brutish mess. But this doesn’t answer the theoretical puzzle. Why do we work together so readily, if economic analysis shows it’s irrational to do so? Are we too dumb to work out what’s in our best interests?

The theorists have not been slow to suggest answers. Perhaps we help others in the expectation that they’ll return our favours. Perhaps we are moved by altruistic impulses and so weigh the welfare of others alongside our own. Or perhaps we are guided by a sense of duty rather than any calculations about the consequences of our actions.

These are all serious suggestions, and no doubt play some part in accounting for human cooperation. But another, simpler answer has been largely ignored. Who said that rational decisions have to be made by individuals? Margaret Thatcher was wrong to say that there is “no such thing as society”; people often form themselves into groups, and these groups are perfectly capable of making decisions and acting on them.

Consider what happens when a group of friends thinks about how to spend a night out, or the members of a sports team devise the best strategy for the next match. They don’t each start thinking about their own best options. Instead, they collectively ask: “What should we do?” and proceed to discuss what joint combination of actions will best achieve their aims.

Moreover, once they have collectively arrived at an answer, they normally each play their part without complaint, even if it isn’t what they would have chosen on their own. In effect, such groups are acting as unified agents. When I make an individual choice, the various parts of my body carry out my plan. In the same way, when a collective group arrives at a decision, its members each then play their part.

Three decades ago, the late Oxford economist Michael Bacharach suggested that this kind of “team reasoning” holds the key to much cooperation. He started with basic examples from game theory. Take what he called “the footballer’s problem”. Harry Winks has the ball in midfield and can slide it to Harry Kane down either the left or right channel. Kane’s run and Winks’ pass must be simultaneous. Both know the defender on the left is significantly weaker. What should they do?

Go left, of course. But, surprisingly, orthodox economic game theory fails to deliver this result. This is because game theory starts with the choices of each agent, and the best choice for each agent depends on what the other might do. Both right and left are good choices if you happen think the other player will do likewise. So, orthodoxy runs into sand and fails to select left as the uniquely rational option. (Technically, in this game left and right are both “Nash equilibria”, stable states named after the mathematician John Nash.)

However, suppose now the two players are thinking as a team. This then gives them four joint options. Pass right, run left; pass left, run right; pass right, run right; pass left, run left. What should we do? It’s a no-brainer. Given the weaker defender is on the left, the last option is clearly best.

It’s a simple enough idea. There’s nothing wrong with the game theorists’ technical analysis. They go wrong only in supposing that agents have to be single individuals. Once we recognise that groups can be agents too, our original puzzles about cooperation simply dissolve.

Choices that seemed puzzling for individuals become obvious for groups. What’s the best way for us to choose a government? Let’s all cast a vote and see who wins. What’s the best way for us to raise money for the school? Let’s each provide a stall at a fair. What’s the best way for us to board the bus? Let’s form a queue as we arrive at the stop.

The notion that groups can be agents is simple enough, but few economists have taken up Bacharach’s idea. Many view his solution as a cheat. Teams are made of individuals, they argue, and so joint decisions must be compounds of individual decisions. But the conclusion doesn’t follow.

Groups are made of individuals, but this doesn’t mean that group choices must be made of individual choices. You are made of cells, but your choices aren’t made of your cells’ choices. In fact, we are all perfectly familiar with group decisions, and no metaphysical argument from the priority of parts to wholes can show that my friends, or my cricket team, or my country, are incapable of asking “What shall we do?”– and then all doing their bit once they’ve answered the question.

Other sceptics invoke Darwin to discredit the possibility of team reasoning. Isn’t it part of our evolved nature to choose actions that put the individual ahead of the group? But we’ve been here before. The evolution of altruistic desires that favour kin and other conspecifics is now well understood by biologists. There’s no reason why the selective processes that explain altruistic desires should not also have given rise to forms of decision-making that prioritise whole groups and not just their individual members.

In recognising the rationality of team reasoning, we don’t need to dismiss individual reasoning altogether. Sometimes it is appropriate to incorporate ourselves into group agents, and sometimes it is right to strike out as individuals.

A good sports team needs its members all to play their role in its optimal strategy, even if that means most will forgo the starring role. But it doesn’t follow that you shouldn’t look out for yourself when, say, you’re competing for a job. It is a substantial challenge for moral theory to work out which form of reasoning should come to the fore in which circumstances.

Can we really let go of the idea that individual self-interest is fundamental? Surely, in the end it comes down to what’s good for each of us. Think about how I argued earlier that we would all suffer a nasty brutish life if we weren’t able to cooperate. Isn’t that an argument that team reasoning will serve everybody’s individual self-interest?

It is certainly true that we all individually benefit from certain kinds of team thinking. But that scarcely shows that individual rationality is fundamental. After all, just as we can have individual reason to foster team thinking, so too can we sometimes have collective reason to foster individual thinking.

Think of Adam Smith’s argument that we all benefit from the “invisible hand” that flows from the individual pursuit of profit. It is not too fanciful, I think, to view Smith as asking the team question “How should we organise the economy?” and answering that our best option is to allow economic agents to pursue their individual goals.

The relative roles of individual and team reasoning raise a number of deep and interesting questions about human action. Still, whatever the precise answers, there seems little doubt that team reasoning plays a positive role in many aspects of our lives. It allows groups to operate as units and achieve results that individual reasoning cannot reach.

We will do well not to take this power for granted. Team reasoning rests on the knowledge that everybody will play their part once a strategy is agreed on. This kind of trust can be fragile. We need only think of the way successful sports teams can unravel once they lose confidence in each other.

The modern world places particular pressures on team reasoning. Traditional affiliations are being weakened by migration and globalisation, at the very moment that crises such as climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic call for collective solutions.

In response, we should nurture existing forms of trust and find ways to forge new ones. We all need to believe in the power of groups to act together in the pursuit of collective interests. Perhaps a first step would be to dispel the theoretical myth that only individual people can be rational agents.

David Papineau is Professor of Philosophy of Science at King’s College London. He is the author of Philosophical Devices and Knowing the Score.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.

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