Shortly after the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the American Red Cross had to wrestle with an odd sort of philanthropic success. So many people donated blood, there was far more than what was needed for the entire nation, let alone the attacks’ survivors. Many people donated money, more than $500 million. And, after covering its immediate costs, the charity diverted most of it to other Red Cross needs.

Feeling they were misled, donors and families of the 9/11 victims were not happy. The head of the Red Cross resigned, but not before being called to account to Congress.

And Craig Parks started wondering how people decide to support some charities, but pass on and even actively oppose others. “Why can’t you predict what kinds of things will people get behind and what kinds of things will people oppose?” he asked.

Psychologist Craig Parks
Psychologist Craig Parks,
photo Shelly Hanks

It’s not a purely academic question. When it comes to keeping civilization on its feet, so much depends on a lot of people giving time, money, or other support for little or nothing in return. People approve bond issues for schools and playgrounds they’ll never use. They donate to radio stations they don’t listen to and people they’ll never meet. They volunteer to fight and die in wars.

Yet some people will go to battle over a new park or school.

“What bad is there about a public park?” says Parks, a WSU professor of psychology who, voluntarily, acts as chair-elect of the faculty senate. “Why would you oppose improvement of facilities at a school? What downside is there to making improvements at a school? But people will do that. And these very same people will then get totally behind something else, so you can’t just say these are people who are completely uncooperative.”

Working with Jeff Joireman in the College of Business and a colleague in the Netherlands, Parks set out to decipher the social and psychological calculus behind caring and cooperation. It quickly got complicated. But their findings, published in the Association for Psychological Science series Psychological Science in the Public Interest, distill some common traits among public goods that succeed while others fail.

Parks unearthed 14 models of human cooperation. The “might vs. morality” hypothesis, for example, asserts that people who voluntarily help others view cooperation as rational while “proself” people think it’s more rational to not cooperate. Parks and his colleagues incorporated the various hypotheses into a model that can then weigh factors like human values, available resources, and cultural norms.

“The model is complex,” says Parks, “but human cooperation is a complex thing. It’s hard to explain complex processes with simple little models. So we’re incorporating everything that has been discussed in the research literature.”

Amid the complexity, the researchers did notice a few ways in which people will be more inclined to cooperate in a public good. A feeling of group identity helps. As the Red Cross’s experience illustrates, a sense of trust is also important, if not paramount.

“People who are more trusting, will generally be more cooperative,” says Parks. “And that’s primarily because you believe that if you cooperate, your generosity is not going to be taken advantage of.”

The researchers saw that sacrifices for the sake of future generations can be problematic, as people doubt the long-term effectiveness of their actions and whether they’ll be appreciated.

“If we cut back on carbon emissions, how do we know that’s going to prevent the catastrophic sea-level rise that’s being predicted?” says Parks. “The answer is we don’t know.”

He suggests looking back to the sacrifices that others made decades ago for benefits we enjoy now. So while we are unlikely to personally meet someone in 2100 and get their thanks for combatting global warming, we can appreciate the efforts of people who fought in the last century’s World Wars. They left a legacy, and thoughts of our own legacy can stimulate efforts on behalf of the distant future.

“Those people five generations from now, you’re not going to know them, but they’re going to know you,” says Parks. “They’re going to know what you did. And they’re going to celebrate what you did. They’re going to thank you for what you did.”

Writing in an accompanying commentary to their paper, Carsten K. W. De Dreu of the University of Amsterdam says the researchers provide “a sound and insightful basis” for those who want to tackle the challenges of human cooperation.

“Too often,” De Dreu writes, “the human capacity for cooperation remains unexploited, leading to ineffective management of common resources such as fossil fuel, failures to negotiate necessary budget reforms, and inadequate leadership behavior that crowds out rather than promotes cooperation among followers.”