Social Expectations are Primarily Rooted in Reciprocity: An Investigation of Fairness, Cooperation, and Trustworthiness

Cognitive Science 47 (8):e13326 (2023)
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Abstract

Social expectations guide people's evaluations of others’ behaviors, but the origins of these expectations remain unclear. It is traditionally thought that people's expectations depend on their past observations of others’ behavior, and people harshly judge atypical behavior. Here, we considered that social expectations are also influenced by a drive for reciprocity, and people evaluate others’ actions by reflecting on their own decisions. To compare these views, we performed four studies. Study 1 used an Ultimatum Game task where participants alternated Responder and Proposer roles. Modeling participants’ expectations suggested they evaluated the fairness of received offers via comparisons to their own offers. Study 2 replicated these findings and showed that observing selfish behavior (lowball offers) only promoted acceptance of selfishness if observers started acting selfishly themselves. Study 3 generalized the findings, demonstrating that they also arise in the Public Goods Game, emerge cross‐culturally, and apply to antisocial punishment whereby selfish players punish generosity. Finally, Study 4 introduced the Trust Game and showed that participants trusted players who reciprocated their behavior, even if it was selfish, as much as they trusted generous players. Overall, this research shows that social expectations and evaluations are rooted in drives for reciprocity. This carries theoretical implications, speaking to a parallel in the mechanisms driving both decision‐making and social evaluations, along with practical importance for understanding and promoting cooperation.

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