On Cooperation and Team Work – 5

We concluded the previous post in this series with the question: Are we what we eat? This is not a facetious question. Rather, it is an attempt to explain significant variations in human behavior. We approach this explanation by exploring the extent to which our physical conditions and the imperatives of survival might have shaped our social and psychological responses.

We speculated that existence as small and constantly warring bands during the hunting and gathering era must have engrained the importance of the distinction between friend and foe. Survival in these conditions must have depended upon the socialization of altruism within groups and hostility across groups. We still see this in the Us/Them syndrome that is often quite mindless in the present environment – a visit to some blogs would be proof enough.

We then asked whether growing crops based on very different labor needs could give rise to differences in behavior. In this context, we focused on rice- and wheat-based agriculture and made the case that the former called for cooperative behavior while the latter had no similar compulsion. Thus increased cooperation amongst people and greater deference to political and social authority in rice-growing societies had a plausible explanation. By contrast, one witnessed a lot more individualistic behavior and lack of acceptance of political authority in wheat-growing societies.

In accounting for the influences of hunting/gathering and agriculture on behavior we have by no means accounted for all the factors that impinged on the survival of human beings in the distant past. Recall that in discussing the variations in agricultural crops we had taken India and Malaysia as our case studies. Both fall in the temperate zone where climate does not have much bearing on survival barring droughts that are unpredictable.

But think now of Northern Europe with its harsh and cold winters. Even if these societies were growing crops (like rye or barley) with the labor requirements of wheat, the winter climate would have imposed new challenges of survival quite distinct from those in the temperate zones.

First, and most obviously, the need for cooperation would not have been confined to a very brief time interval as in rice-based agriculture of temperate zones. Rather, this must have extended all through the winter season. Gathering food, seasoning it, arranging for its storage, collecting firewood, protecting the livestock, all these would have been tasks needing collective inputs. Second, the preparation for sowing of fields frozen over during the winter would have been beyond the capacity of individuals working by themselves.

On can imagine that this kind of survival challenge would have called for the assignment of varied tasks to teams to be carried out before and during the winter months. And this would have socialized a different kind of behavioral pattern – one that would have elements of cooperation in the form of teamwork and of competition across teams assigned similar tasks.

Once again, we reiterate that this kind of speculation cannot be used to explain everything. However, it does provide an intriguing starting point for reflection on behavioral differences that moves beyond attributing them to mere accident.

For purposes of discussion we can use the example of cricket. The English and the Pakistani sides are both very competitive but one often hears it said that the English play like a team whereas the Pakistanis play as a collection of individuals. Can we now look at this phenomenon through a different lens?

There are some radical implications of this line of enquiry. If correct, it would imply that broad behavioral tendencies are not really a matter of free will or even of genetics. Rather, the imperatives of survival in different physical environments predispose some psychological responses over others.

This does not mean that individuals today are completely held hostage by their evolution. But it would certainly help to recognize one’s predispositions in order to be conscious of the need to behave differently in specific circumstances and also to design one’s institutions appropriately with the predispositions in mind.

Pakistani cricketers clearly need more than the usual dose of counseling to make them into a more effective team. Either that, or they need a truly dominating leader like Imran Khan who could command (at least some of the time) the loyalty of the others to his personality. Note also that given the predispositions of the Pakistani players, the shorter the version of the game the better their chances of keeping up with the others.


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4 Responses to “On Cooperation and Team Work – 5”

  1. Vikram Says:

    Kashmir, in the subcontinent has harsh winters and weather quite similar to Europe, are there any cultural differences (in terms of co-operation) between the Kashmiris and say the Punjabis ?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram, I will take Vinod’s advice and be cautious in speculating about specific groups especially small, niche communities. This kind of perspective works for broad generalizations and directs the analysis in an empirical direction in order to better underatnd possible reasons for observed differences in behavioral traits.

      Having said that, it is quite common to read about attitudinal differences between highlanders and lowlanders even in relatively small territories. Jared Diamond makes some points about the differences in Papua New Guinea in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

      So what is needed is an ethnographic study of Kashmir somewhat along the lines of the classic Political Leadership Among Swat Pathans by Frederik Barth. It might even be better to focus on Ladakh if we really wish to test what attitudes are socialized by extreme conditions of climate.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    An explosive interview by Greg Chappell raises the issue of teamwork and leadership and their relationship to culture. Of course, Chappell leaves it a that and does not go into what shapes culture itself:



    Chappell then spoke about what was wrong with the Indian culture. “The culture is very different, it’s not a team culture,” Chappell said. “They lack leaders in the team because they are not trained to be leaders. From an early age, their parents make all the decisions, their schoolteachers make their decisions, their cricket coaches make the decisions.

    “The culture of India is such that, if you put your head above the parapet someone will shoot it. Knock your head off. So they learn to keep their head down and not take responsibility. The Poms (British) taught them really well to keep their head down. For if someone was deemed to be responsible, they’d get punished. So the Indians have learned to avoid responsibility. So before taking responsibility for any decisions, they prefer not to.”

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    We had hoped to get to music in this series that remains incomplete. I am just placing this link here as a preamble to a speculation about why Western and Indian classical music are so different and how that difference might be related to factors like geography. To question to start the thinking is the following: Why is a conductor so essential to Western classical music and non-existent in Indian classical music?


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