Link My iMpact  
Link Strategic Positioning Tool Kit  
To Executive Education
To Kresge Library
Shirli Kopelman
  Shirli Kopelman

Understanding How Group Culture Affects Cooperation

9/25/2006 --

Cultural values and norms influence the likelihood that decision-makers will cooperate in resolving social dilemmas.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Cultural values and norms may impact the cooperative behavior of decision-makers in dealing with social dilemmas more than most people think, says a Stephen M. Ross School of Business researcher.

Shirli Kopelman, assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan's Ross School, suggests that adopting a "cultural lens" can provide a better understanding of cooperation in conflict situations.

Group culture, she says, is an important psychological factor that influences the likelihood that decision-makers will cooperate in resolving difficult social, economic or political situations, particularly in cases where collective non-cooperation can lead to undesirable future outcomes for all.

In her paper, "Sheep, Mouton or Kivsa? Does culture influence cooperation in social dilemmas?" Kopelman extends James March's theoretical approach to decision-making in social dilemmas, known as the "appropriateness" framework.

According to this approach, people making decisions ask themselves explicitly or implicitly the question, "What does a person like me do in a situation like this?" This question identifies three significant factors that influence behavior: the identity of the individual making the decision; the recognition and definition of the situation encountered; and the application of rules or heuristics in guiding behavioral choices.

Kopelman discusses how this plays out in cross-cultural research. For example, identity is reflected by the cultural value of individualism (individual profit-maximizing behavior) versus collectivism (placing group interests before individual interests).

Recognition and management of socially interdependent situations are influenced by the extent to which people focus on social status and power. In egalitarian cultures, status differences are de-emphasized and power distances are less important for social interactions, whereas in hierarchical cultures, social status implies social power.

Finally, the rules that decision-makers are likely to adopt are shaped by behavioral norms, and communities often develop different solutions for resource-allocation problems in social dilemmas because of cultural variation in what groups consider fair.

Identity, recognition and rules are interrelated in all cultures, but Kopelman argues that they also are affected by group culture.

"Whereas culture permeates these three decision factors, I argue that it holds an important enough influence to be treated as a fourth factor," Kopelman says. Thus, she suggests expanding the key question in the appropriateness framework to: "What does a person like me do in a situation like this given this group culture?"

To illustrate how group culture provides insights into identity, recognition and rules, she relates an example of cross-cultural differences in decision-making. For instance, in an asymmetric commons dilemma, managers from different cultural groups apply different decision rules based on culturally appropriate fairness norms.

Relative to managers from the United States and Germany, Israeli managers are more likely to follow an individually rational decision-making approach, taking more resources when they feel they have a high level of economic power. However, decisions of Hong Kong Chinese managers reflect a collective rationality approach, foregoing individual profits by taking fewer resources in a high economic power condition.

"To better understand decision-making, future empirical research will need to examine the effect of group culture on social dilemmas," Kopelman says. "Likewise, practitioners managing resources will benefit from understanding the impact of culture on cooperation."

Written by Claudia Capos

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847