19 June 2020

People Are Generous

Prosocial: Relating to or denoting behavior which is positive, helpful and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship (www.lexico.com/).
Tasty prosocial behavior (from quizlet.com/240141367/).

Welcome back. With political partisanship and hateful behavior peaking, it’s easy to think people either don’t give a hoot about their fellow human beings or that they’ve narrowed the concept. 

Take heart! A recently published study found human prosociality is alive and well.

Prosociality and Reciprocity
Theoretical models and empirical tests have shown that prosocial behavior is promoted by reciprocity. Forms of reciprocity include helping those in our social networks who have helped us (direct reciprocity); paying forward help we receive from one person to another in our network (generalized reciprocity); giving more in the presence of network members who can reward our giving (reputational giving); and rewarding network members who have given to others (rewarding reputation).

Illustration of four forms of reciprocity, with individuals denoted by letters and help shown by arrows; e.g., in direct reciprocity, B helps A after A helped B (from advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/23/eaba0504).
On their own, each form of reciprocity predicts prosociality; each motivates people to behave in a way that benefits other people. But what happens if we are confronted with multiple forms of reciprocity simultaneously? Will some forms of reciprocity crowd out other forms? For example, will giving solely to gain a positive reputation eliminate gratitude and other more sincere prosocial giving via generalized reciprocity? Does human prosociality break down when multiple forms of reciprocity co-occur?

Testing Prosociality with Co-occurring Forms of Reciprocity
Researchers affiliated with Ohio State and South Carolina universities set out to determine if the forms of reciprocity persist in the presence of other forms. They assessed the robustness of reciprocity with a web-based experiment using Amazon Mechanical Turk in which more than 700 participants interacted. The participants, unseen by and unknown to each other, had no known social network relationship.

For the experiment, the researchers crossed the four forms of reciprocity with three levels of each form. In all, they generated 81 conditions to isolate the effects on prosociality while enabling the different forms to be embedded together.

Participants were provided the information corresponding to different conditions and asked how many, if any, of a 10-point endowment they wanted to give to other people. Helping was costly to the giver and socially beneficial; the points had monetary values to participants, and any point given was doubled.

The researchers found that, with the four forms of reciprocity combined, direct reciprocity did not vary and generalized reciprocity, though strongest in the absence of rewarding reputation, was present across all conditions.

While reputational giving and rewarding reputation were moderated by direct reciprocity, reputational giving promoted giving across all conditions and rewarding reputation failed to increase giving in only one condition--when the person to whom the participant was giving had previously given to the participant.

Wrap Up
With a single exception, all four forms of reciprocity positively predicted giving, regardless of whether the other forms of reciprocity were present or how they were combined.

People overwhelmingly chose to be generous to others at a cost to themselves. And in this experiment, the others were strangers. I think that’s pretty cool. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of prosociality and reciprocity in Science Advances journal:
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-06/osu-ptt052920.php

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