Why reciprocity is so important for cooperation

With collaboration being such a fundamental part of the modern workplace, it’s perhaps to be expected that examining the conditions by which it flourishes has itself thrived in recent years.  Various studies have suggested that cooperation is helped by things such as familiarity and guilt.

A new paper, published in Psychological Science, suggests that reciprocity is key to understanding why, and when, we decide to cooperate with other people.

“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,” the authors say. “This is important because it advances theory on understanding the origin of human cooperation.”

Reciprocity vs conformity

The researchers wanted to directly test reciprocity and conformity against each other to see which was most influential in terms of future cooperation.  In other words, would we cooperate with someone that helps us, even if others in our group don’t?

The researchers conducted a number of experiments to test out their hypothesis, and the results were consistent.  Participants were likely to cooperate with their peers when others cooperated as well.  In other words, when they were confident that their good deed would be returned, then they were more likely to do good things, creating a kind of virtuous cycle.

What is most interesting however is that this behavior held even when others in the group behaved differently.  Participants were cooperative when they worked with a cooperative partner, even if the rest of their group was largely uncooperative.  What’s more, they were more likely to be cooperative in such an environment than if they worked with an uncooperative partner but the rest of their group cooperated.

“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,” the authors say. “Indeed, the social dilemmas investigated in these studies are used to study and model real world problems such as global warming, or tax evasion.”