It was a jigsaw puzzle that pieced Matthew McCarter’s life together. Or, at least introduced what would become his field of study, his unique teaching style and a different approach to everyday negotiations.
Ironically, that puzzle was never completed.
When McCarter was an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, his class was given a simple task: break into groups and complete a jigsaw puzzle. Each group was given a different puzzle. Whichever team finished first and ran to the winner’s circle, which included an overhead projector, would win a bag of Snickers.
“Quickly we discovered we were all missing pieces and had incorrect pieces. We had to figure out how to cooperate with each other while at the same time compete against each other,” said McCarter, assistant professor of management.
The class exercise failed.
The overhead projector light was stolen. Puzzle pieces were snatched from tables and nearly completed puzzles were deliberately knocked over.
More than 20 minutes after the class was to end, the instructor stopped the game with no winners.
“I was shocked at what happened,” McCarter said. “Everyone was doing what was best for themselves, and it resulted in the group doing poorly.”
He couldn’t stop thinking about it. After a sleepless night, with the advice of a professor, he decided to research what could have caused such aggressive behavior.
That’s when he discovered a book on social dilemmas, situations in which individual and group interests are at odds.
Suddenly, McCarter saw examples everywhere. Like the students who walked across delicate landscaping, each thinking they were the only ones to do so, but ultimately killing the grass from their sheer numbers. Or the group projects where one person inevitably does most of the work to get the job done while other group members shirk.
McCarter went on to write 15 journal articles on the subject of cooperation versus competition. He received his Ph.D. in business administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and held the Wang-Fradkin Assistant Professorship in the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University prior to joining UTSA.
He continues to study conflict management with a focus on interdependent decision-making and collective action. “I’m still fascinated by it,” he said. “I see it as a problem that we always have to fix.”
And the problem is everywhere, prevalent in churches, businesses and communities, and within families, he said.
“When people don’t have a monetary incentive to cooperate, we have to find some other way,” he said. “So I’m trying to find some other ways.”
This fall, McCarter is using approaches similar to the puzzle exercise to teach the same concepts in his own class.
“I believe the best way to learn management theory is to experience it or to witness someone else experiencing it,” he said. “Don’t just take my word for it. You just watched it happen. The students will never forget it.”