Clippinger on collaboration.

Tim Kitchin pointed me to this fascinating paper: Human Nature and Social Networks by John H Clippinger. As Tim summarises this gives strong evidence that humans are biologically programmed to collaborate tending to undermine the ravings of “Social Realists” who think the only way to get economic man to do things is to bribe or cajole him.

Clippinger quotes Robin Dunbar’s work Grooming

Could it be that language evolved as a kind of vocal grooming to allow us to bond larger groups than was possible using the conventional primate mechanism of physical grooming? …If conversation serves the same function as grooming, then modern humans can at least groom with several others simultaneously.

This idea really lodged in my mind last week. I increasingly sense that beneath the surface of our supposedly rational conversations something rather more significant is going on. I rather like taking the notion of grooming from the animals and seeing social discussions between humans as a variation of it. Even heated arguments and flame wars may on some level be like the play fighting of animal cubs.

Clippinger explores how we use language to create social signals that support collaboration:

Instead of having to impose such cooperative mechanisms from above or through formal monitoring and intervention processes, highly sophisticated cooperative behaviors can be evoked by creating a context in which the appropriate social signaling takes place. Once given the appropriate signals and rules, groups can spontaneously self-organize and control themselves.

This tends to support the notion of creating simple rules for groups that leave them more scope for self-managment, rather than overspecifying. Open Space facilitaiton strikes me as a very good example of an approach that provides simple social signalling and allows large groups of people to self-organise very effectively.

He also examines how our language can be classified into higher and lower registers. High register language is intended to reduce ambiguity by raising precision. By limiting meaning in this way, it supports precision but also may tend to exclude more people from understanding. (Jargon would be a low-register term to describe high-register language.) Clippinger goes on to note that

Often in an attempt to be more precise and therefore less subject to misinterpretation, high register terms are used to issue orders and tasks on the mistaken assumption that the more specified a term is, the better command intent is communicated.

If I follow Clippinger correctly, he argues that high register language requires more rational processing by the listener in an effort to understand the speaker’s intent; with low register language, the process is nore intuitive. Here’s how he puts it, see if you think I’m interpreting this right.

Unless the task is very technical and well-specified (which even many technical tasks are not), the more effective and reliable course is to use low register terms. Low register terms provide clear signaling, whereas high register terms require the recipient to interpret and improvise within the context that the commander has identified.

The reason that people are able to infer command intent is that, over tens of thousands of years, they have evolved mirror neurons and the ability to construct and confirm common theories of mind through shared experiences. These are extremely important and often undervalued competences that are overlooked because of the mistaken assumption that interpersonal directives can be fully and unambiguously specified through high register communications, or less graciously, bureaucratese. The challenge from an edge command and control perspective is to understand those conditions whereby intent can be most readily and deliberately framed – appropriate language registers, shared experiences, and internalized social protocols.

I think when working with improvisation games, or using Open Space facilitation, the “undervalued competences” Clippinger describes have more space to emerge. I also think this is part of what makes highly function networks, such as those creting Open Source software, formidable.

Finally, I really liked Clippinger’s working defintion of trust:

Trust is the consequence or state when one or more members of a network perform according to mutual expectation.

5 thoughts on “Clippinger on collaboration.

  1. Johnnie Moore


    Clippinger’s article is certainly very interesting. He provides a good summary of much of the current thinking on cooperation in society.

    But I do not think it is coprrect when you say that, “this gives strong evidence that humans are biologically programmed to collaborate, tending to undermine the ravings of “Social Realists” who think the only way to get economic man to do things is to bribe or cajole him.” That goes a bit too far. It ignores the cognitive biases within our neurophysiology that so easily lead us astray and the need for what Axelrod famously called the “shadow of the future”.

    Clippinger’s point (and the position taken by most others who study cooperation) is that the path to effective cooperation requires a mixture of self-organisation and command & control. The exact proportions are highly dependent upon contextual factors.

    Although self-organisation in individuals who don’t know each other is more than enough to drive cooperation in some circumstances (just try suggesting the building of a by-pass in a picturesque part of southern England and see what happens!), it is not sufficient nor effective in others (just try getting young people to save adequately for their old-age).

    Cooperation in individuals, groups and society at large is perhaps well described by the West African proverb popularised by Teddy Roosevelt before he became President; “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”.


    Hi Graham. Well I was beig a little rhetorical but I stand by what I said: Clippinger’s work certainly contradicts accounts which over emphasise command-and-control. You could accuse me of attacking a straw man but I certainly disagree that I went too far.

    I agree with you that what works is hugely contextual.

    It’s also highly subjective. For instance, you seem to imply that young people are making the wrong choice on pensions but who is to say, in the end, whether what they are organising for themselves lacks wisdom. An awful lot of people I know have been mis-sold some truly poor pension plans and with hindsight might have done better making other choices.

    I don’t much warm to your proverb. Who, exactly, do you think should be carrying this metaphorical big stick? All of us? And if not all of us, who do you propose be given the authority to cajole us?

    I tend to favour narratives that emphasise the talent of the group over those that depend on heroic figures to guide us.

  2. Graham Hill

    Hi Johnnie

    Interesting response.

    The pensions saving problem is a very real one. There is considerable evidence that young people in advanced economies are not saving enough to cover the reduced payments they will receive from company and state pensions over their extended lifetimes. Take a look at the work of the Chicago economist Richard Thaler’s extensive studies on how behavioural finance can be used to get young people to save more.

    Mis-selling is a different issue entirely. A young person not taking up a pension plan because the seller was crooked makes a wise choice, but only if they knew the seller was crooked beforehand and only if they made alternative plans to save instead. This was clearly not the case with mis-selling.

    But just as pertinent, as the Economist in a recent article on “soft paternalism” suggests, governments in these advanced economies have taken it upon themselves to step in and use Thaler’s framing effects to actively persuade young people to do what is good for them in the future. Big governmental stick vs. speaking softly to yourself? You decide which works best.

    Clippinger is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. You will certainly enjoy reading through his 2003 paper on the “Renaissance of the Commons” – available from And if you like Clippinger’s Renaissance article, take a look at Yale Law School’s Yochai Benkler’s article on “Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm” – available from Happy reading.

    As ever. Nice to talk to you.

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Hi Graham: Soft paternalism sounds a lot nicer than the stick, for certain!

    What Improv teaches me is that structure and freedom are not opposites but actually work together. I suspect we are probably in violent agreement.

    Thanks for posting to the Renaissance of the Commons, which was a great companion piece and full of rich ideas.

  4. Dwight Towers

    Hi Johnnie, will go and read these pieces recommended by you and Graham Hill. Have just read a reasonable book (despite the shoddy neologism of a title – “Simplexity” – by Jeffrey Kruger. A couple of apposite quotes –

    But broken these and other norms do get. What appears in their place in time of emergency is something complexity researchers call the emergent norm: that is, a whole new set of rules arising de novo. The first thing people often do in a relatively slow-motion emergency like a black out or a fire is being with what appears to be the manifestly wasteful practice of milling, standing about and quizzing one another about a problem none of them really understands….

    page 46

    Complexity researches call the introduction of ideas in this ad hoc system “keynoting”, tossing out a thought around which the discussion crystallizes…. “Somebody comes up with a keynote,” Aguirere says. “Counter-ideas or theories come forth. Trial and error happens. And eventually an emergent norm is reached.”

    page 46-7


    Dwight Towers


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