Why are some societies more cooperative than others?

Imagine you are living in a remote village and because of a harsh winter the village is cut off from the main source of electricity. There is no electricity to use for light, heating and television. Luckily, one villager has a generator that can provide sufficient electricity to all other villagers. The only condition is that all villagers should follow rules so that no one overuses the electricity. Will the generator work just enough for everyone or will it collapse?

The true story of a village in the Netherlands in 1978 inspired my psychologist friend Anna Sircova, me and other collaborators to model how people cooperate with respect to their time perspective.

“We live in and with time. Due to various reasons, we can easily become overly oriented on the future, get stuck in the past, or live completely in the present moment. Therefore, how we perceive time, can determine how much we are willing to cooperate. The perspective on time, not only creates personal differences, but it determines our social behavior, something that has been largely neglected in modeling social behaviors. ”, says Anna Sircova.

In our recent paper published in PlOS ONE, we combined aspects of personal time perspective with social interactions to investigate to what extent people cooperate. We used time perspective profiles from 25 countries to compare which ‘villages’ could survive the winter longer. Based on this results we found that UK, New Zealand and Germany are among those countries with high cooperation index. In the lower ends there are Lithuania, Mexico and China.


These results are correlated with other socio-economic indices such as Human Development Index (HDI). There is a link between how our perception of time creates cooperation in the society and how society encourages us to perceive the time.

The generator in the small village in the Netherlands collapsed twice and situation could only be resolved by appointing patrols to monitor other’s misuses, but we hope that theses results can be used to improve psychological aspects of cooperation to prevent social tragedies.

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