Cooperation and Reconciliation: Week 4 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 4, Cooperation and Reconciliation.

Intro to cooperation

Roadmap for week 4 (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Cooperation, one of this week’s themes, means working together toward a common goal for mutual benefit. We’ll look at how we evolved to cooperate and how cooperation is more intrinsic to human beings than competition.

The evolution of cooperation (Dacher Keltner)

It make sense that we evolved to be cooperative because of its benefits for groups and for individuals. Even today, neighborhoods with more social cohesion and cooperation (called “collective efficacy”) have better child health and life expectancies, greater high school graduation rates, and less social disorder. In contrast, non-cooperative or “Machiavellian” people feel more isolated, more stressed, and less happy. And when we look at our primate relatives, we see that they in fact are quite cooperative.

The prisoner’s dilemma game, where two players choose to either defect or cooperate and get punished accordingly, is a microcosm of society. While an individual can get the best outcome by defecting when their partner cooperates, this strategy obviously wouldn’t work if everyone used it. Ideally, everyone would cooperate and achieve the greatest collective good. On the individual level, the best strategy is called “tit for tat”: we start cooperative then mirror our partner’s actions. This strategy is forgiving and transparent, but it prevents us from becoming a sucker.

“Birds do it. Bats do it” by Jeremy Adam Smith and Alex Dixon

Cooperation is not just part of human nature, but also animal nature and nature itself. Multicellular organism are simply cells cooperating. Ants coordinate their route in and out of the nest to avoid traffic jams. Big fish let little fish clean out their mouths in exchange for a snack. Birds gang up to protect each other from predators – but only if the bird in danger has come to their aid before. Four out of five bats would die if they didn’t share food, which they do – as long as the other bats share with them. All these behaviors should inspire us to nurture our own cooperative natures.

Neuroscience of cooperation (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Cooperation – and the lack of it – has a distinctive effect on the brain. Cooperation activates our reward-processing and pleasure centers. When cooperation breaks down, we feel displeasure and our amygdala gets activated.

Some brain areas, like the insula, activate when we cooperate or compete with others – suggesting they deal with our connection and attunement to other people. Other prefrontal areas activate only during competition, when we may need more brainpower for decision-making.

The “dark side” of the neuroscience of cooperation is that people who perform “altruistic punishment” – against non-cooperators – have activation in the same reward-processing areas, the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex. In both of those cases (cooperation or punishing non-cooperators), the social order is being upheld.

“The cooperative instinct” by Emiliana Simon-Thomas

Another game that gives us insights into our cooperative nature is the Public Goods Game, where we start with a certain amount of money, we put part of it into a common pool, the common pool gets doubled, and the money is redistributed. When players make their decisions in under 10 seconds – whether they do it naturally or they’re forced to – they give more money and thus act more cooperatively. Players also contribute more if they’re primed to think about how intuition helped them in the past or reasoning failed them. This suggests that we have cooperative instincts but may reason ourselves into being more self-interested.

Peacemaking and reconciliation

Conflict and peacemaking (Dacher Keltner)

Conflict among people is inevitable, as anyone with children, spouses, or parents can attest to. But we’ve actually evolved sophisticated ways to kickstart the process of reconciliation. Our facial expression of embarrassment (discussed below) actually makes people like, forgive, trust, and give more resources to us. We see similar behavior among primates, who – instead of avoiding each other after a fight – make peacemaking gestures that lead to physical contact and grooming.

“Peace among primates” by Robert M. Sapolsky

Some primate species are violent and others are more peaceful, and the difference seems to lie in their nature and their environment. Peaceful species tend to have more abundant food supplies, less sex differentiation, monogamy, and shared parental responsibilities.

But these tendencies aren’t rigid. A violent baboon will learn to be more peaceful in just an hour if we drop it among peaceful baboons. If we raise two groups together, naturally violent macaques become reconciliatory and stay reconciliatory even if we put them back with their own group. A group of baboons that lost its most aggressive males developed a more peaceful culture, which persisted even when the males left and other males arrived.

What does that mean for humans? We’ve evolved to be cooperative but very wary of outsiders, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change. Our amygdala may naturally activate when we see people of other races, but we can stop that by regularly spending time with other races or striving to see people as individuals.

“Born to blush” by Dacher Keltner

Our embarrassed facial expression has many components that help us move past whatever gaffe we’ve committed. When we’re embarrassed, we turn our heads down and to the side, exposing our vulnerable necks and showing weakness and humility in a way similar to animal gestures of appeasement. That movement breaks our eye contact with the other(s) and serves to cut off the previous interaction and start a new one. We also smile, but in a way that’s similar to primates’ “fear grimace” or bare-teeth grin, showing inhibition. We may look up furtively a few times and touch our faces, something primates do as well.

All this communicates respect for others and acknowledgement of our transgression, and it helps the two parties make peace and become cooperative again – which is good for everyone in the long run.

Introduction to apology (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

How else do we resolve conflicts other than looking embarrassed? We apologize, of course. Research has shown that apologies increase psychological health and positive emotion in victims, while decreasing negative emotions. They also benefit the apologizer, who similarly sees an increase in psychological health, positive emotion, and (if they’re a leader) authentic pride. An apology will always generate some negative emotion for the apologizer, but that’s part of the journey to greater well-being.

An effective apology has four components:

  • We express remorse, shame, or humility in recognizing how the victim suffered.
  • We acknowledge the specific offense and accept responsibility – that includes elaborating on who was the offender, who was offended, and what the offense was.
  • We show empathy and offer an explanation for why we did what we did. Often we might explain why our actions weren’t intentional or personal in order to convince the victim that it won’t happen again.
  • We offer compensation or reparation.

This kind of apology satisfies the victim’s psychological needs for dignity, shared values, and an opportunity to express their feelings. It convinces the victim they weren’t responsible and that it won’t happen again. It also creates reparative justice by planning some punishment for the offender and some compensation for the victim.

“Making peace through apology” by Aaron Lazare

The step where apologies often break down is in acknowledging the offense, because the offender doesn’t get specific enough. But if done right, apologies make it easier for the victim to forgive. Victims may even accept some blame and end up closer to the offender. When an apology isn’t forthcoming, it might still make sense to forgive – which is different from reconciling – because of the benefits for the forgiver.

The science of forgiveness

Intro to the science of forgiveness (Dacher Keltner)

Forgiveness occurs when we are able to accept what happened, reduce our desire for revenge, avoid the offender less, and feel more compassion for them. It’s not reconciliation for the sake of reconciliation or taking away responsibility from the offender; in fact, it can be something we do for our own well-being. Forgiveness is linked to more life satisfaction, more positive emotions, less negative emotions, less physical symptoms of illness, and less fight-or-flight response. Couples who forgive are happier as many as 9 weeks later.

“The new science of forgiveness” by Everett L. Worthington Jr.

Forgiveness is actually good for our health: people who forgive have less stress and less hostility (a marker of Type A behavior, which is a risk factor for heart disease). This is particularly true of older people, who are more likely to forgive and experience benefits like less nervousness, restlessness, and sadness. Not forgiving may disrupt the way our bodies produce hormones or respond to bacteria, infections, and other health challenges.

Forgiveness is also good for our relationships. It correlates with happier and more committed relationships, particularly in marriages. That doesn’t mean forgiveness is easier in close relationships, but it helps if our partner seems trustworthy and willing to sacrifice for us. In contrast, people who don’t forgive experience more conflict, negative emotions, and unwillingness to compromise. When they don’t forgive, partners can become competitive and start to “keep score,” which is extremely detrimental to the relationship.

So how do we get to a place of forgiveness, with its benefits to self-esteem, mood, and happiness? Besides forgiveness training, we can summon our hearts (or, more accurately, our brain’s limbic system) to be empathetic, rather than looking at the issue from the perspective of fairness and rationality. And we can accept that forgiveness takes time.

“The forgiveness instinct” by Michael E. McCullough

People say revenge is human nature, and they are only half right – because so is forgiveness. Revenge is found in nearly all cultures, and it serves a purpose to discourage aggression and prevent free riding.

But forgiveness is also near-universal across cultures because of the purpose it serves: bringing people together. It allows groups to stay cohesive and cooperative, which makes them more likely to survive.

So what determines which side of our nature shows its face? Mostly our environment. If we’re in a place with crime, disorder, and no rule of law, we’re more likely to be vengeful. But if our environment has stable judicial institutions and norms of reconciliation and cooperation, we’re more likely to be forgiving. We can also transmit forgiveness through cultural vehicles like religion, the arts, media, and politics.

Frederic Luskin on the choice to forgive

Luskin, who developed the “Nine Steps to Forgiveness” program, says that forgiveness boils down to a simple choice: to focus on the positive or the negative. We can obsess and ruminate over the wrongs we have suffered, or we can decide to ponder all the good things that have happened to us.

Frederic Luskin on wanting “yes” and getting “no”

“Forgiveness is the ability to make peace with the word no,” says Luskin. We feel resentment when reality doesn’t meet our expectations, but again we have a choice: to accept the past or not. The healthy decision is to continue our lives without feeling like a victim. That might mean forgiving whoever caused us wrong, as well as forgiving ourselves for the way we responded.

“The choice to forgive” by Frederic Luskin

Luskin is the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, which do research and offer classes on forgiveness. They’ve discovered that forgiveness can reduce stress, anger, depression, and hurt while increasing optimism, hope, compassion, and vitality.

Part of the process of forgiveness involves rejecting our own “unenforceable rules” and creating “enforceable rules.” Unenforceable rules are desires that we have no control over – such as wanting other people to be a certain way – while enforceable rules are desires and goals that are within our control.

The way to become forgiving is to practice it on small harms so that we’ll be more prepared to forgive when we’re seriously hurt.

“The limits of forgiveness” by Donna Howe

Studies have shown that forgiveness and happiness are a virtuous circle: forgiving today makes us happier tomorrow – particularly if we forgave someone close to us – and happier people are more likely to forgive. Other research shows that spouses who forgive are happier and more satisfied in their relationships, except when they’re frequently mistreated. In that case, the more forgiving partners are less happy.

Jack Kornfield on what forgiveness means

Many common views of forgiveness miss the mark. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or forgetting; rather, it involves accepting negative emotions like betrayal, anger, grief, or fear. It doesn’t minimize the offense, and we may still resolve to never suffer the same way again. It’s something we do for ourselves, so it may not even involve contact with the offender. And it’s a very profound and challenging process that doesn’t happen overnight.

“Facing fear, facing forgiveness” by Jill Suttie

The movie Facing Fear is also a movie about forgiveness, starring gay man Matthew Boger and former neo-Nazi skinhead Tim Zaal, who attacked him when they were teenagers. It’s called Facing Fear because the process is scary for both of them. Boger says that part of forgiveness is letting go of a part of ourselves that we’ve identified with, the part that holds a grudge and feels resentment.

Happiness practice #4: Eight essentials when forgiving

Robert Enright detailed eight steps to forgiveness, beginning by making a list of people who hurt you who are worth forgiving. Then, you start with the least painful offense and take some time to think about how you suffered and how that makes you feel. When you’ve decided to forgive, you can start to think about the circumstances that led to the offense, including the offender’s childhood, past hurts, and other pressures they were under. Pay attention to whether you feel kinder toward the offender and consider giving them a small gift. In the end, you can reframe the experience and try to find meaning and purpose in what happened.

Once you’re done, rinse and repeat for the more painful offenses on your list, working up to the most painful. This process has been shown to increase forgiveness and decrease anxiety and anger.

Building trust

The science of trust (Dacher Keltner)

Trust is the sense that other people will act on behalf of our interests. Research has shown that more trusting cultures tend to be happier, but trust of institutions and individuals is declining in the US. So how do we make people more trusting, besides giving them a whiff of oxytocin?

Touch is a gateway to trust, with its ability to soothe and activate reward circuitry in the brain. The simple handshake when we meet someone is a gesture of trust. Research has shown that appropriate touch by teachers of students makes them volunteer to write on the board more, and (everything else equal) NBA teams who touch each other more win more games.

Language also helps cultivate trust. Our habits of using indirect or polite language build bonds between people, and negotiators who have a few minutes to communicate come up with better and more cooperative outcomes. Even little differences can engender more trust: calling the prisoner’s dilemma the “Wall Street game” or priming players with words related to competition increases defection, while calling it the “Community game” increases cooperation.

“Brain trust” by Michael Kosfield

Another game that gives us a window into trust is the investor-trustee game, where the investor gives money to the trustee, it gets tripled, and the trustee decides how much to give back. Players tend to give away about half of their money and get a similar amount back. But we can increase trust by having the players play with each other longer, introducing punishments for untrustworthiness, reminding them of their obligations to each other, or giving the investors oxytocin. Interestingly, oxytocin makes the investors give more money but not expect more in return.

John Gottman on the importance of trust

Trustworthiness is the most desirable quality in a romantic partner, and it encompasses qualities like dependability and honesty. In a romantic relationship, it has many dimensions – we need to trust that our partner will be faithful, respect us, be there for us when we need them, choose us over their friends or family, etc.

“Trust and betrayal” by John Gottman

Gottman identified a “betrayal metric” to measure the lack of trust in a relationship. He had couples interact and then independently rate their interactions afterward. For couples with less trust, interactions were more like a zero-sum game – when she rated it well, he rated it poorly, for example. Astonishingly, higher trust was correlated not just with relationship stability but also with longevity in husbands.

When trust isn’t there, we see partners using the relationship as a “comparison level for alternatives” (CL-ALT); they start to think they would be happier with someone else, which changes behaviors significantly.

Trust is built like a tower of cards, one “sliding door” moment at a time. At many points in a relationship, we have the choice to connect with our partner or turn away from them – ignoring their emotions, concealing our own, or not engaging with them. The most trusting couples are ATTUNEd to their partners: Aware of their emotions, Turning toward them, Tolerating different views, trying to Understand their partner, Not being defensive, and feeling Empathy.

While it’s critical in relationships, trust is also important on a global scale. Regions of the world with low trust have lower voting rates, less active parents/schools, less philanthropy, more crime, lower longevity, worse health, worse academic performance, and more inequality.

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!


Read more Science of Happiness summaries!