Why bother getting along: Professor David Rand explores the motives behind human cooperation

Professor David Rand. Photo courtesy of

Professor David Rand is a modern Renaissance man. An Assistant Professor of Psychology, Economics and Management, with work published in Nature, Science, the New York Times and Wired, his research on human cooperative behavior spans several disciplines with applications in many more.

Rand’s research arises from the grand question of cooperation—why does it exist? He defined cooperation as “one agent paying a cost to benefit another,” whether that cost is time, money or effort. Because cooperation requires individuals to bear costs from which they derive no benefit, from an evolutionary perspective (in which agents serve only themselves in order to survive), cooperation should not exist. Further complicating matters, economic models assume that agents act selfishly and rationally, again contradicting the existence of cooperation.

To understand why cooperation does indeed exist, cooperative behaviorists must draw heavily from game theory, sometimes combining it with evolutionary biology using a set of mathematical formalisms known as “evolutionary game theory.” Rand is particularly interested in why people (rather than other organisms) cooperate, and aims to inform public policy with his work. He is conducting field studies in collaboration with energy and utilities companies to further this end, using the results of cooperative behavior experiments to shape policy decisions.

Rand’s path toward studying cooperative behavior was not always clearly defined. As an undergraduate at Cornell, he began as a computer science major, but soon switched to biology with a focus in computational biology, which he describes as “a mix of applied math, biology, and computer science.” After working at a startup creating mathematical models of biological phenomena, he attended graduate school at Harvard in Systems Biology; there, he took a class in evolutionary game theory and thought, “This is awesome!” Speaking from his own experience as an undergraduate, Rand encourages students from economics, psychology, biology and applied mathematics to learn more about cooperative behavior.

Part of what has made Rand so successful in his field is how he picks projects to study. He emphasizes prioritizing, saying that “after you’ve been [studying] this for a while, you can generate lots of ideas… The challenge is cultivating a ‘sense of aesthetic taste’ for which of those projects are actually worth pursuing.

After selecting an intriguing project, he employs one of two research methods: either behavioral or computational. Regarding behavioral methods, he highlights the importance of designing an experiment well. “You need to have a good idea of how you’re going to analyze the data once you’ve collected it… your experimental design can become flawed if you don’t consider what will give you the most insight afterwards,” he warned. On computational methods, Rand underscores the idea that a very simple model can produce complex phenomena. “We’re not so much looking at what exact numerical coefficients in an equation create these phenomena, instead we’re saying ‘look, this is what’s possible based on certain fundamental assumptions’,” he said.

Rand also points out the importance of computer programming in sciences: “Everyone should take an intro programming class… It’s a super useful skill, both in academic and private sectors.” He is making good on his advice, teaching a course next semester that teaches computational modeling of social interactions to students majoring in social sciences with no prior experience with programming.

In addition to his academic work, Professor Rand is an avid musician. He began playing in punk bands in high school, and even earned a record deal before he started graduate school. With a nostalgic smile, Rand calls his current situation a “sad story,” as he has had less time to play music given the sheer quantity of academic work he pursues. He points out the strong parallels between music and academia—finding an idea that others haven’t pursued yet, creating and capturing this idea, and then sharing it with other people are all parts of both academic and musical processes.

Rand downplays his meteoric rise to fame, claiming that he was extremely fortunate to have an advisor in graduate school who could get papers into top journals, describing the process as “riding [my advisor’s] coattails.” He also attributes some of his success to the field of cooperative behavior itself: “This is what’s hot right now. I’m just lucky to be studying it at the right time.”

Looking forward, Rand is excited to see the developments his first crop of graduate students will create in the field of cooperative behavior, and the implementation of his research findings in public policy.