January 8, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 7

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    Research on reciprocity shows human tendency to ‘take two eyes for an eye’

    By William Harms
    News Office


    Research in Psychology has shown that in everyday social exchanges, being unkind to people has a lot more impact than being nice.

    Research on reciprocity—giving and taking—shows that a slight can elicit a more pronounced negative response than a generous gesture will evoke a positive response, even if the net value of the social transaction is the same.

    “Negative reciprocity, or taking, escalates,” said Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology and lead author of the paper “Reciprocity is Not Give and Take: Asymmetric Reciprocity to Positive and Negative Acts,” published in the December issue of Psychological Science. The study was based on giving-and-taking games conducted on students and people in downtown Chicago.

    The games provided data on how people respond to give-and-take social exchanges.

    “For instance in driving, if you are kind and let someone go in front of you, that driver may be considerate in response. But if you cut someone off, that person may react very aggressively, and this could escalate to road rage,” Keysar said.

    The situation can escalate when the person doing the slighting doesn’t appreciate how strongly the recipient experiences the slight, Keysar said. “The one receiving the slight cannot imagine that the slighter lacks that appreciation. And so it goes, because of such differential perception, they respond more and more strongly. Small slights could escalate to unbelievable, irrational feuds,” he explained.

    Nicholas Epley, Professor of Behavioral Science and a Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth, and University graduate students Benjamin Converse and Jiunwen Wang joined Keysar in the research. To examine how people respond to situations involving reciprocity, the researchers conducted experiments on campus as well as in downtown Chicago with people on the street.

    One such experiment tested 40 college students. The students were divided into two groups and asked to conduct experiments that began in two different ways using money. In the first group, one player learned that another player had $100 and was going to share it. In each situation, the player with the money gave the other player $50. When the roles were reversed, the players who had been given $50 by their game partners now had $100, which they could share. In those exchanges, the players gave their partners, on average, $49.50.

    In a companion experiment, the scholars found that the act of taking had a far bigger impact on people’s responses than did the act of sharing. A player received $100 from which another player was able to take as much as desired. That player took $50, leaving the first player with $50 just like in the sharing experiment. But when the roles were reversed, the first players took back much more, leaving the partners with an average of $42.

    Another experiment confirmed the pattern, showing that taking quickly escalated as players became increasingly greedy over repeated exchanges. In the college experiments, the players did not keep the money, but the results were the same in an experiment in downtown Chicago, where $10 were exchanged and players kept their money.

    The study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Mental Health, and the Templeton Foundation, shows various social exchanges differ from those in the marketplace, where goods are bought and sold, Keysar said.

    “Acts of giving are perceived as more generous in social exchanges than objectively identical acts of taking,” Keysar said. “Taking tends to escalate. Reciprocity appears to operate on an exchange rate that assigns value to the meaning of events, in a fashion that encourages pro-social exchanges. This is precisely why the norm of ‘an eye for an eye’ was developed—to counteract people’s natural tendency to take two eyes for an eye.”