The name of Oliver Hauser's recent paper doesn't pull punches. "Cooperating With the Future," published in Nature, is about what you'd imagine. It asks—and answers—how we can ensure that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will have access to the same resources that we do.
The answer, it turns out, is pretty simple: Work together.
Hauser and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments that showed that "cooperating with the future" is most realistic when we make decisions collectively rather than individually. His laboratory tests demonstrated that, if people are allowed to decide to take as many resources as they want from a common pool, those resources won't last even until the next generation, since a minority of "takers" tend to grab the majority of stuff.
On the other hand, when people vote to divide a resource equitably, the resource remains sustainable for the next generation, and even up to 14 generations thereafter. Voting on a binding agreement works, Hauser found, because the mandatory cooperation reinforces good behavior and reins in those inclined to take more.
Hauser grew up in Innsbruck, a small town in the Austrian Alps. At 15, he grew curious about what lay beyond the mountains, so he moved to Texas via the American Field Service, a yearlong student exchange program. "During this year," Hauser recalls, "many of my previously held assumptions about what's 'right' and 'wrong' were challenged. Not everyone held the same beliefs about inequality, health care, education, religion, or gun laws. To this day, observing these differences prompts me to ask why humans make different choices."
Living in the United States showed Hauser new ways of living, adjusted his beliefs, and taught him to dream big. He noticed how hard the students around him were working to secure a place for themselves at a top university. No one in Hauser's family had ever gone to college but, as he puts it, "This motivation caught on with me and helped me set goals."
In 2010, Hauser finished a physics degree back in Innsbruck, then went to Harvard University for graduate school, where he's now a Ph.D. candidate in the school's program for evolutionary dynamics. Mainly, he conducts behavioral experiments that shed light on human nature.
Many things led Hauser to the behavioral sciences, but none were more compelling than listening to Martin Nowak, a fellow Austrian, talk about the power of human cooperation. Hauser sat in on a presentation Nowak gave about why we might help others, even at a cost to ourselves. "Martin demonstrated that people continue to cooperate despite the opportunity to exploit others," Hauser says. "I found this absolutely fascinating and a true testament to humanity. I was sold, and went on to become Martin Nowak's doctoral student."
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Today, Hauser's work around decision-making follows two strands of research. One is the aforementioned focus on how we can foster more cooperation and kindness. The other centers around how income inequality can complicate the choices we make. His next paper, not yet published at press time, shows that "people behave dramatically differently when they know the level of inequality in their group compared to when this information is not revealed," he says.
Hauser feels privileged to have a job that lets him ask and answer such questions. "It's unbelievable," he says. "They pay me to do whatever I'm interested in. My motivation comes from choosing topics and problems I find fascinating."
When asked where he sees himself in 10 years, he replies, "Doing research, because I love it." And in 50 years? "Doing research, because I love it." (In his free time, he practices aikido, reads, plays the guitar, and hangs out with his wife Emily.)
Hauser's life philosophy, inspired by Monty Python, is: "Always look on the bright side of life." By the end of his career, he hopes to have helped people find ways to make the world better, whether through his research on cooperation, or by inspiring students to go out and do good.
To aspiring behavioral scientists, he advises: "Be ambitious. Be curious. And be willing to accept that not everyone will think that what you're doing is interesting. As long as it's really interesting to you, keep at it."
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