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People can be deceived into following mandates if they believe others are following them, when they aren’t.

That would be lying of course, and something that should be anathema to an electoral democracy, and engendering trust in political and medical authorities.

But a University of Pennsylvania study is basically suggesting authorities do exactly that — lie — in order to gain more cooperation with things like pandemic mandates, and perhaps other desired cooperative behaviors.

The study, conducted by Bryce Morsky, a postdoctoral researcher, was inspired by deceptive practices of Napster, a 1990’s era peer-to-peer file sharing software.

Napster depended on users sharing files on their computers, and not just downloading files from others, in order for the ecosystem to thrive. By pretending more users were sharing their own files than was actually the case, Napster was successful in increasing the overall level of file sharing on its network.

With that in mind, Morsky designed a study to examine what would happen if members of a community were told others were cooperating with certain protocols, even if they weren’t. 

“Commonly in the literature on cooperation, you need reciprocity to get cooperation, and you need to know the reputations of those you're interacting with. But Napster users were anonymous, and so there should have been widespread 'cheating'—people taking files without sharing—and yet cooperation still occurred. Evidently, obscuring the degree of cheating worked for Napster, but is this true more generally and is it sustainable?"

Study results, which used a mathematical model to simulate and maintain a community, confirmed that deceiving community members could result in higher levels of actual cooperation. The resulting paper, by Morsky and Erol Akçay, an associate professor in the School of Arts & Sciences' Department of Biology, has been published in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences.

Akçay said the study underscored what researchers already generally know about cooperative behavior.  Humans often have conditions that depend on what others are doing.  “They will cooperate when others cooperate.”  

The point at which someone begins to cooperate varies from person to person. Some people will cooperate even if no one else will, while others will cooperate only if the majority of the community does. A community can end up with either very high or very low levels of collaboration depending on the amount of members with varied cooperation thresholds.

“Our goal was to figure out, How can obfuscation act as a catalyst to get us to a highly cooperative community?” says Morsky.

The modeling showed that the longer the deception about actual cooperation levels could be sustained, the higher actual cooperation levels could be driven.

Communities with a high number of so-called naïve members achieved the highest rates of cooperation. When “savvy” members, ie., ones who knew about the deception, were introduced to the community, they quickly left, leaving mostly naïve members to continue their behaviors.

But  the modeling showed that when the learning rate for discovering the deception about cooperation increased, the resulting “savvy” individuals left. Keeping the secret, and adding new naïve members, were the best methods of sustaining and growing actual cooperation levels.

Lessons for Government Control 

If the study sounds like it could just as well have been related to COVID policies as to a mostly forgotten file sharing software company, Akçay himself drew comparisons.

“You can see how conditional cooperation factors into behavior during this pandemic, for example. “If you think a lot of people are being careful (for example, wearing masks and social distancing), you might as well, but if the expectation is that not many people are being careful you may choose not to. Mask wearing is easy to observe, but other behaviors are harder, and that affects how the dynamics of these behaviors might unfold.

“This is a problem that humans have had to solve over and over again. Some amount of cooperation is required to have a society be worthwhile.”

Of course, the real question isn’t whether cooperation is necessary to a functioning society. The question is what route a company, or a government might take to try to achieve it. Should lying be allowed, if it supposedly serves a worthy purpose?

And what happens when that worthy purpose is not worthy at all? In other words, the purpose of transparency is exactly to provide communities and societies with the means to come to accurate decisions about the worthiness of goals. Engaging in deception ultimately corrodes the ability to accurately judge goals.

In looking only at levels of cooperation, and not taking into account what community members were cooperating to do, the study avoided such thorny questions.

There was one finding the study did confirm that might seem counterintuitive to COVID mandate hardliners. Morsky said their study showed that “hiding” those who knew the truth might be a better strategy than calling attention to them via punishments:

“Typically when we and others have considered how to maintain cooperation, it's been thought that it's important to punish cheaters and to make that public to encourage others to cooperate. But our study suggests that a side effect of public punishment is that it reveals how much or how little people are cooperating, so conditional cooperators may stop cooperating. You might be better off hiding the cheaters.”

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