Question: Why are some people more inclined to cooperate while others are more inclined to compete?
Answer: It’s all in the socialization.
Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion.
I went to Malaysia for the first time about fifteen years ago. I saw in every government office I entered placards on the walls with guidance from the Prime Minister – Be Nice or Be Honest or Make Malaysia Great, etc. What surprised me was the seriousness that public servants accorded such messages.
It struck me immediately that this kind of thing would never fly in the Punjab with which I was familiar – it would become the butt of jokes. There is a very evocative term in the Pakistani Punjab that captures this attitude – Rikard Lagaana, the word ‘Rikard’ standing for Record. I have no knowledge of how this term emerged but it certainly dates to the days of the 78 RPM disc because the alternative usage is Tawwa Lagaana and ‘Tawwa’ was the vernacular for the 78 RPM disc. The word ‘Tawwa’ itself in its proper usage refers to black metal plate on which rotiis are made in the Punjab and which has a certain resemblance to the disc.
That started me thinking. How was it that the same messages that were treated with such respect in Kuala Lumpur would invite nothing but cynicism and ridicule in Lahore?
I was aware that in a Confucian culture there was great premium on respect for the leadership and for the elders in society. But although there were a fair number of Chinese in Malaysia, it was nonetheless a Muslim country like Pakistan. The Prime Minister and the majority of the public servants were ethnic Malays.
So there had to be some other explanation. I had to wait a number of years during which I kept turning this puzzle over in my head. It was while reading a book on cultural anthropology that a plausible answer came to my attention.
The following was the simple hypothesis of the author. Take a rice-growing society and a wheat-growing society and think of what kind of social organization is needed to get the crops to maturity.
Traditional paddy rice could not be grown without a very high degree of cooperation amongst the village population especially when the crop had to be transplanted during a very short interval of time. Wheat on the other hand has no such requirement – every farming family can take care of their 12-acre plot independently of the other families in the village.
Over generations, this variation in labor requirements socializes a rice-growing community into cooperative behavior while a wheat-growing community develops a much more competitive ethos. The village leader in the former community has the task of organizing and coordinating the cooperative effort and flouting his authority can lead to collective loss. In the latter community, the concept of leadership itself is quite alien – everyone is the lord of his domain and people attempting to exercise authority are not looked upon kindly and made fun of behind their backs.
I don’t know if this hypothesis has been subjected to any formal test but it does provide the starting point for a lot of fruitful thinking. One can think of variations between Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan where the land holdings in the latter are much more unequal. What impact does that have on social attitudes towards village leaders? How do social attitudes vary on the cooperation-competition spectrum as one travels from the wheat growing areas of India towards the rice growing ones? What can one say about Sri Lanka or Bangladesh?
It would be interesting to speculate along these lines. Is culture the emergent outcome of our everyday activities? Are we really what we grow and eat?
This post is written to acknowledge a debt to the writer who opened a new window of the mind and provided a lot of space for flights of fancy. Unfortunately I do not remember either the name of the book or of the author but I do thank him with much sincerity.
Continued: On Cooperation and Competition – 2