I wasn’t convinced. For a start, some of the cycling experts seemed to be making the old mistake of ruling out altruism from the start, on the spurious grounds that everybody always acts on their own desires. (Of course they do. That’s not the point. The interesting question is what their desires are aimed at. If they are aimed at other peoples’ benefit, then they are genuinely altruistic desires.) And, once we are clear about that, shouldn’t we count a desire for a team win as altruistic, given that the other team members will enjoy the victory too?
But on second thoughts I realized that the cycling experts might have a point. Do team aspirations really count as altruistic? Teams are curious things, more than the sum of their individual members, and don’t fit naturally into the way most philosophers and economists think about choices. Indeed, the more I thought about them, the more teams seemed to undermine conventional theories of decision-making, in at least two ways.
But first let’s get clear about cycle racing, as that’s puzzling enough in itself. Even in amateur races, cyclists will voluntarily form themselves into teams, and the members without a fast finish will devote all their efforts to getting their leader first across the line, happy to share the glory of a team victory. It is just a historical quirk, I am told, that the prizes are usually awarded to individuals. In truth road cycling is as much a team sport as rugby or basketball.
(I’m still not sure I get it. If you were watching the Commonwealth Games women’s road race a few weeks ago, you would have seen England's Emma Pooley strike out with some 30km left to go. The idea was to make the opposition chase her, so they’d be out of puff when the England leader Lizzie Armistead made her bid for gold. And so it went. But what I didn’t understand was why Armistead didn’t help Pooley when she passed her with 7km left and they were a minute ahead of the rest. She was safe for the gold and could have made sure Pooley won the silver. I was Tweeting about it at the time. Richard Williams of the Guardian, himself a keen cyclist, put me right. “Now that would be, as they say these days, a big ask. The team rides for the leader: the leader's responsibility is to win.” This seemed oddly harsh to me, when Games medals were at stake. Happily, Pooley did hang on for the silver—but no thanks to her teammate.)
I’m not really sure what we should say about this. Since teams are more than their members, wanting your team to win isn’t strictly the same as wanting other people to benefit. Still, perhaps we should adjust the definition of altruism to cover team spirit. In the end I don’t think it matters too much. We can stipulate as we choose.
So a first point about teams is that they add to the range of things that people care about, in a way that puts pressure on standard definitions of altruism. Perhaps that doesn’t seem worth writing home about. But teams also matter to decision-making in a second and far more interesting way. Once you are part of a team, you can address your problems differently. You are no longer limited to “what shall I do?” Now you can ask “what shall we do?”
Orthodox decision theorists have long viewed choices in terms of individuals. A single agent selects that action that promises to maximize wanted results. But more recently a maverick faction† has been urging that group decisions are no less fundamental than individual ones. Humans naturally form themselves into families, foraging parties, friends on a night out, . . . and sports teams. And when they do, they tend to think as a group. They select that joint strategy that promises to maximize benefit to the group, and then they all play their allotted parts.
It makes a big difference. Consider the set-up known in the game-theory literature as the “Footballers’ Problem”. Wilshere has the ball in midfield and can slide it through to Giroud either down the left or right channel. Giroud’s run and Wilshere’s pass must be simultaneous. Both know the defender on the left is significantly weaker. What should they do?
Go left, of course. But suprisingly the branch of orthodox decision theory that deals with co-ordinated actions, game theory, fails to deliver this result. This is because it starts with the choices of each agent, and the best choice for each agent depends on what the other does, and what the other does is supposed to be predicted by game theory . . . so orthodoxy runs into sand, and fails to select left as the uniquely rational option.
But now suppose the players are thinking as a team. They have four joint options. Pass right, run left; pass left, run right; pass right, run right; pass left, run left. What should we do? It’s a no-brainer—the last option is clearly best.
With one bound he was free. Orthodox theorists think it’s a cheat. They object that group actions are nothing but a bunch of individual actions, and individuals are designed by evolution to further their own interests. But they are missing the point. Given that the best way to further your own interests is often to think as a team, it would be odd if evolution hadn’t made it natural to do so. Of course sometimes it also pays to think for yourself, and so evolution is likely to have made that natural too. I would say that both ways of thinking come naturally to human beings, depending on the circumstances.
Sport brings out the interplay between team and individual thinking. One of the things I used to love about cricket was the variety of rewards it offered. The best days were when your team won and you played well too. But even if your team lost you might still get runs or wickets yourself. Then there were games where a team victory made up for your individual failure. And even in the worst case, when individual failure was compounded by team loss, you could at least console yourself with the thought that the rest of your side didn’t do much better.
Nearly all team sports involve this combination of team and individual aspirations. You want your side to win and to play well yourself. Cricket and baseball stand out because their scoring systems automatically calibrate the relative contributions of the players. But they are by no means the only sports where you can take some pride in playing well in a losing team.
As a rule, individual and team imperatives pull together. What’s good for you is good for the team. But sometimes the two conflict. Your side wants runs quickly though that risks your getting out. We need you to man-mark their playmaker and forget the showy stuff. As a class, competitive athletes are surprisingly ready to put their team’s needs above their own. Selfish teammates are very much the exception.
It works better when players put the team first. But that’s not always enough. There is another pitfall in the way of team success. The side can forget how to reason as a team. The question “what shall we do?” assumes that everybody will play their part in the optimal team strategy. If this assumption is undermined, for whatever reason, the power of team reasoning is lost.
This is what happens when teams disintegrate or choke, like Manchester United over the past year, or the New Zealand rugby team in nearly every World Cup until the last. It’s not that these sides aren’t bothered about winning. Far from it—they are desperate for success. It’s rather that they lose confidence in their ability to coordinate their actions. They start worrying about the others’ choices, and end up in the plight of the poor game theorist, thinking that if he does that, then I’d better do this, but if he . . .—and then no-one is sure what to do.
Perhaps there is a wider moral here. In society as well as in sport, it is not enough for everybody to wish for the common good. They also need to trust everyone else to play their part in the optimal team strategy. Once lost, this kind of trust is not easily regained.