Cooperation driven by reciprocity, not conformity

September 11, 2017, Association for Psychological Science
Credit: Association for Psychological Science

From an evolutionary perspective, cooperating with others can yield benefits that increase chances of survival. But what are the conditions that motivate us to cooperate? New research suggests that reciprocity - cooperation under the assumption that we will receive benefits in return - outweighs our desire to conform with group norms when we're deciding whether to cooperate with someone.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"Understanding human cooperation with strangers is considered a puzzle by many disciplines. Our findings show that people are relatively influenced more by reciprocity than conformity when deciding to cooperate with others," says psychological scientist Angelo Romano of the University of Torino and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. "This is important because it advances theory on understanding the origin of ."

Previous research had produced evidence in support of both reciprocity and conformity, but Romano and co-author Daniel Balliet of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam observed that no studies had tested which process would win out if the two were pitted directly against each other.

Romano and Balliet wondered: If another person chooses to cooperate with us, would we return the favor even if other members of our group don't? Or would we follow the group norm and choose not to reciprocate the other person's cooperative overture?

The researchers conducted a series of three online experiments to find out.

In one study, 704 online completed activities with five other group members - in reality, the responses of these five "participants" were actually programmed by the researchers.

In the first activity, participants imagined that their spaceship had crashed and had to decide which 15 pieces of equipment to bring with them as they escaped. They were told that their score would be combined with those of their group members, who were supposedly completing the task at the same time. The purpose of this activity was to foster a sense of group cohesion and belonging among participants.

Then, in a second activity, the participants played a game with their group members and another (also programmed by the researchers). In each round, a group member and the partner each received 100 tickets and had to decide how many to give to each other. Each ticket given away doubled in value - for the participant, the best outcome would occur if she kept all 100 of her tickets and her partner gave away all 100 of his tickets. In this case, the participant would have a total of 300 tickets.

If both the participant and her partner gave away their tickets, they would each end up with 200 total. But if they both kept all their tickets, they would only have the 100 that they started with.

Importantly, the participants played last and could see the previous rounds between the partner and each group members before making their own decision.

Overall, participants were more likely to cooperate when others cooperated - that is, they gave more tickets away when they saw that their group members gave their tickets away and when they saw that the partner tended to give his tickets away.

But the results were especially revealing when the partner and the responded differently. Participants were more cooperative when they had a cooperative partner and an uncooperative group than when they had an uncooperative partner and a cooperative group. In other words, when the options to reciprocate the partner's behavior or conform to the group's behavior were in direct conflict, people were more likely to cooperate with the partner than fall in line with the group.

Additional experiments supported these results, even when the researchers included additional factors that strengthened norms.

Taken together, the experiments shed light on the mechanisms that drive our decisions to cooperate with people who aren't genetically related to us - a topic that has long perplexed behavioral, evolutionary, and biological scientists.

And they may have implications for boosting cooperation in the :

"Our research may also inform practitioners interested in finding solutions to promote cooperation at small and large scales - among individuals and groups, organizations, and nations," says Romano. "Indeed, the social dilemmas investigated in these studies are used to study and model real world problems such as global warming, or tax evasion."

Explore further: Higher levels of cooperation for provision than for maintenance of public goods

More information: Angelo Romano et al, Reciprocity Outperforms Conformity to Promote Cooperation, Psychological Science (2017). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617714828

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TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Sep 11, 2017
"There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection" (Darwin, 1871, i, p. 166)

- This is where cooperation comes from. Reciprocity comes from perceived membership. Otherwise, negotiate with one hand behind your back.
Bongstar420
not rated yet Sep 11, 2017
"There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection" (Darwin, 1871, i, p. 166)

- This is where cooperation comes from. Reciprocity comes from perceived membership. Otherwise, negotiate with one hand behind your back.

The trick is getting others to over value your contribution. Then you get to be donald trump
aeschylus
not rated yet Sep 11, 2017
They were doing well and good until the mystics took over to write the codes....
Da Schneib
not rated yet Sep 11, 2017
So basically religions are useless for fostering cooperation. They make people stupider.

Good to know.
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Sep 11, 2017
Game play does not reflect actual behaviour as has been shown in the most strident fashion in the paper 'Economic Man' in Cross-cultural Perspective ~ Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-scale Societies' by Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis, Richard McElreath, Michael Alvard, Abigail Barr, Jean Ensminger, Kim Hill, Francisco Gil-White, Michael Gurven, Frank Marlowe, John Q. Patton, Natalie Smith, and David Tracer

The basic flaw in game play is that by definition, games isolate the player from reality, particularly from the consequences of one's actions and players are also encouraged to be individualistic in all computer and before them hand held and board games. This is the nature of game play, not of people's behaviour, and offering tiny cash sums such as $20 does not change this behaviour significantly.

Reciprocity, not cooperation, drives *game play*, not natural human behaviour.

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