Michael Macy Matthew Hoffberg Cornell University

The research challenges the behavioral assumptions on which predominant explanations of direct reciprocity are based. By addressing the human ability to differentiate between behavior and intentions, this study investigates how one's willingness to reciprocate helping (or "prosocial") behavior may be moderated by the perception that the helping behavior was sincere ? that is, motivated by altruistic intentions. This perception, in turn, is hypothesized to depend on two factors exogenous to the helping behavior itself or to the actor who is helping: the prosocial values of the recipient as well as the normative environment, specifically the degree of collectivism, in which the behavior occurs. In contrast to previous research on prosociality conducted in the lab, original survey and interview data will be collected from a cross-national sample of a multinational technology organization to test the project's hypotheses.

Broader Impacts. Results from this study should be of interest to academic scholars in sociology, management, and psychology, as well as practitioners in the management and organizations field. In challenging the view that actions matter, not intentions, this study introduces a uniquely sociological perspective to the literature on reciprocity by positing how contextual factors have tangible consequences for cooperation. The study also suggests a counter-intuitive property of collectivist workgroups: while collectivism may indeed promote prosocial behavior, it may also undermine reciprocity by affecting how prosocial behavior is perceived. The practical implication for organizations is that screening job candidates for altruistic social preferences may be more effective for improving workgroup productivity than relying on collectivist norms for prosocial behavior.

Project Report

Reciprocity is the grease that helps a team function effectively as a cohesive unit: people help other people, the "other people" then reciprocate, and both parties are better off. But the underpinnings of reciprocity are not sufficiently understood, as indicated by the lack of adequate explanations for why people commonly reciprocate favors even in the absence of potential future rewards. Predominant theories use a combination of biological and behaviorist reasoning: favors beget favors due to an innately felt sense of obligation to reciprocate. Yet one problem with these accounts is that they fail to explain the development of long-term relational cohesion, since the desire to contribute to a relationship ends once a recipient has reciprocated. This project develops and tests a social cognitive explanation of reciprocal behavior that demonstrates how the intentions ascribed to favor givers have lasting consequences within emerging relationships. In addition, recipients’ own dispositions, as well as the prevailing organizational culture, are postulated to influence the intentions ascribed to favor givers. The project thus investigates not only the effects of perceived intentions on reciprocity and long-term cohesion, but also key exogenous factors that shape such perceptions. To test the project's predictions, original survey data was collected from employees in the United States, India, and People’s Republic of China branches of a large multinational technology company. This data was supplemented by several dozen semi-structured interviews with employees in all three countries, as well as by experimental data collected from participants in both a traditional lab setting and online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. Three important findings resulted from this endeavor: 1) interpersonal cohesion is far more contingent on recipients' perceptions of givers' intentions than the magnitude of givers' favors; 2) altruists reciprocate more than egoists in exchange, yet not because altruists are generally more selfless, but because they are more likely to perceive favor givers as sincere (i.e. having beneficent intentions); 3) prior genetic and normative explanations of reciprocity fail to explain how cooperative behavior may extend beyond a given exchange; by contrast, the present study demonstrates how greater relational cohesion—as a result of perceiving givers as altruistically motivated—will inspire recipients to engage in generous behavior towards their partners should future encounters unexpectedly arise. Taken together, these findings shed new light on the long-term stability of interpersonal cohesion and thus have implications for the study of teamwork as well as organizational behavior, institutions, and social networks more broadly.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Patricia White
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Cornell University
United States
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