Our CEO Chase Garbarino had a great post earlier about the tension between competition and community in the startup scene. This is something I think about a bunch, and while my biases are toward community, I’m never quite sure where I land.

But Chase finished his post by noting that it’s something that we need to talk about, and I can’t agree more. In fact, there’s good psychological evidence to support the fact that how we frame things will have real consequences for our community over time.

Let me explain…

In his recent book The Penguin and the Leviathan, published last year, Harvard law professor and leading internet scholar Yochai Benkler reviews existing research on the psychology, biology, and economics of collaboration and the motivations that drive it. In doing so he relates a fascinating experiment about how choices in framing can impact altruism. As Benkler describes it:

One particularly simple example is called the Wall Street/Community game experiment. Psychologist Lee Ross and his collaborators divided their subjects into two groups and had each of them a standard Prisoner’s Dilemma game. In a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, two people are each made the following offer: If player A cooperates and player B refuses, player B gets, say, $10, and player A gets nothing. If player B cooperates and player A refuses, player A gets the $10 and B nothing. If neither player cooperates both get, say, $2, and if both cooperate, then they each get $5. The two players have to make a decision without knowing what the other player will do.

As Benkler explains, they’re clearly better off both cooperating than both defecting. But without the ability to predict the other’s actions, game theory, which assumes selfish rationality, predicts they’ll each defect to ensure that they at least get the $2.

When Ross ran the experiment, he ran two identical trials with different subjects, except that in one case he told the participants they were playing “the Community game” and in the other that they were playing “the Wall Street game.” As Benkler explains:

As it turned out, peoples’ willingness to cooperate differed dramatically depending on which version they were told they were playing; those who were told they were playing the Community game cooperated about 70 percent of the time, while those who were told they were playing the Wall Street Game cooperated only about 33 percent of the time.

Framing matters. Culture matters. And it matters as much in startups as in experiments like this. Just think about angel investing. Sure, angel investors want to make money, but many former entrepreneurs also do it as a way to “give back” to the community. The Community/Wall Street experiment suggests that the atmosphere that they experience as entrepreneurs – whether it’s a helpful community or a cut-throat competition – could alter the extent to which they choose to give back both capital and mentorship in the future.

I still lean towards community in response to Chase’s question, and I’m still far from certain. But one thing is clear: the distinction matters.