Chris Froome, tour de France, individualism and cooperative groups

by Jul 21, 2013Individualism0 comments

We now know that Chris Froome is the 2nd British winner of the tour de France in as many years, an extraordinary achievement. Cycling  might not be everybody’s favourite sport but it does offer fascinating insights into the relative importance in human nature of both individualism and being a  group player.

How often in this race did we see individuals or small groups breakaway from the main pack of riders. How often too were they clawed back by cyclists working hard for each other. These of course were cyclists who were also arch rivals yet when they needed to they pulled together. When a breakaway group did succeed and escape the peloton this was partly because the breakaway group all worked for each other, and often also because the main peloton had too many people making individual breaks rather than working together. Groups of individualists, however brilliant, will never outcompete highly cooperative groups. This is true of all team sports but also it seems of groups in human evolutionary history [1]

What we know increasingly from evolutionary [2] and anthropological research [3] is that as a species we evolved to be cooperative and altruistic as well as self-interested and individualistic. The balance between these ways of beings shifts according to our states of mind and our environments. For example when stressed, anxious, angered or threatened we are far less likely to be kind or altruistic to others. When the chips are really down it tends to be each person for themselves. We also act more or less selfishly depending on what a group or society’s values are and what others around us are doing [4].

What I think could be seen as refreshing about long cycling events such as the tour is that rampant individualism rarely if ever pays off. I notice in myself and commentators an excitement when someone makes an early lone breakaway and then a growing sense of anticipation as the group works together to pull them back. Those who do not pull their weight are not popular, and there was even a moment when Froome was admonishing his rival Contador for not doing his bit for the group they were in. This is something we all know from personal experience, such as the expectation of buying a round in the pub, and it might be part of a drive for fairness which seems to be seen in all human societies and even gives rise to less savoury attitudes such as blaming so-called welfare scroungers. We like people who pull their weight. Many of the brain’s reward circuits fire up when we build a good reputation [5], and people tend also to be generous to those who have a reputation for decency and generosity [6].

What is also interesting about the kind of altruism or mutual support seen in cases like the tour de France is that there is not much genuine generosity on view. True some team members have the job to ‘ride for’ other riders, such as those who lead out their team’s sprinters, or Froome’s Sky team riding for him this year, and of course Froome did this last year for Bradley Wiggins. Such riders are self-sacrificing for sure, and this might perhaps be compared to soldiers risking their lives for their regiment or fire-fighters on dangerous missions. Those who believe in pure self-interested individualism are hard pushed to make sense of some such acts.

However such acts might be thought of as also self-interested, a version of what the evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers called ‘reciprocal altruism’ [7]. The team gains and so in turn does the team member, and indeed in the tour de France the winner traditionally splits the prize money with the team.

There are of course more genuinely altruistic acts, rooted in empathy, caring for others and a genuine generosity. This is what researchers such as Daniel Batson have proven I think beyond doubt now [8]. We often act generously because we want to, not only because it makes us feel good to do so or only because our reward circuits light up [9], which they do. Although I do not want to get too moral and political in the face of a brilliant sporting achievement, I do feel that there are lessons from all this. We increasingly live in a society where individualism is rampant and even feted, in the kind of society that academics describe as egocentric as opposed to sociocentric [10], in which people think about others less and are less embedded in communal values and group life [11]. More and more countries are moving in this direction, with the US and Britain right at the front of the line [12]. Even child-rearing practices have been found on a micro-level to change to more individualistic models as market values penetrate [13].

Some argue that  empathy and cooperative values are under threat in the modern world [14], even that empathy is in danger of dangerously diminishing in a  world where individualism might be a more successful strategy than ever before in human history [15]. Others suggest that non-empathic self-serving individuals such as sociopaths might be better placed to be successful in more anonymous individualistic late capitalist market societies [16], [17]. Who knows if this is catastrophising or a warning that we need to heed? Both individualism and cooperation have always been with us, but their balance certainly shifts depending on the society we live in, the stressors we are under and the values a society or group endorses. For now though I am happy to celebrate the balance seen in the tour de France where individuals never get away with too much selfishness and team-work is valued as vital


[1]          S. Bowles and H. Gintis, A cooperative species: human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton: Princeton Univ Pr, 2011.

[2]          E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. New York:: Norton, 2012.

[3]          C. Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

[4]          G. Hardin, ‘The tragedy of the commons’, Science, no. 162, pp. 1243–48, 1968.

[5]          R. Saxe and J. Haushofer, ‘For love or money: A common neural currency for social and monetary reward’, Neuron, vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 164–165, 2008.

[6]          C. Wedekind and M. Milinski, ‘Cooperation Through Image Scoring in Humans’, Science, vol. 288, no. 5467, pp. 850 –852, May 2000.

[7]          R. Trivers, ‘Reciprocal altruism: 30 years later’, Cooperation in primates and humans, pp. 67–83, 2006.

[8]          C. D. Batson, Altruism in humans. Oxford: Oxford Univ Pr, 2011.

[9]          J. Moll, R. Zahn, R. de Oliveira-Souza, F. Krueger, and J. Grafman, ‘The neural basis of human moral cognition’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 6, no. 10, pp. 799–809, 2005.

[10]        C. Geertz, The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

[11]        R. D. Putnam, Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

[12]        G. Hofstede, Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. CA: Sage Pubns, 2001.

[13]        H. Keller and B. Lamm, ‘Parenting as the expression of sociohistorical time: The case of German individualisation’, International Journal of Behavioral Development, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 238–246, 2005.

[14]        R. Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation. London: Allen Lane, 2012.

[15]        S. B. Hrdy, ‘Mother nature: Natural selection and the female of the species’, Politics AND THE, 2001.

[16]        R. D. Hare and P. Babiak, Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

[17]        M. Stout, The Sociopath Next Door. New York: Broadway Books, 2007.

Share this Graham Music blog post

Sign up for my newsletter and occasional updates