Human prosociality presents an evolutionary puzzle, and reciprocity has emerged as a dominant explanation: cooperating today can bring benefits tomorrow. Reciprocity theories clearly predict that people should only cooperate when the benefits outweigh the costs, and thus that the decision to cooperate should always depend on a cost–benefit analysis. Yet human cooperation can be very uncalculating: good friends grant favors without asking questions, romantic love “blinds” us to the costs of devotion, and ethical principles make universal moral prescriptions. Here, we provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, that reputation effects drive uncalculating cooperation. We demonstrate, using economic game experiments, that people engage in uncalculating cooperation to signal that they can be relied upon to cooperate in the future.Abstract
Humans frequently cooperate without carefully weighing the costs and benefits. As a result, people may wind up cooperating when it is not worthwhile to do so. Why risk making costly mistakes? Here, we present experimental evidence that reputation concerns provide an answer: people cooperate in an uncalculating way to signal their trustworthiness to observers. We present two economic game experiments in which uncalculating versus calculating decision-making is operationalized by either a subject’s choice of whether to reveal the precise costs of cooperating (Exp. 1) or the time a subject spends considering these costs (Exp. 2). In both experiments, we find that participants are more likely to engage in uncalculating cooperation when their decision-making process is observable to others. Furthermore, we confirm that people who engage in uncalculating cooperation are perceived as, and actually are, more trustworthy than people who cooperate in a calculating way. Taken together, these data provide the first empirical evidence, to our knowledge, that uncalculating cooperation is used to signal trustworthiness, and is not merely an efficient decision-making strategy that reduces cognitive costs. Our results thus help to explain a range of puzzling behaviors, such as extreme altruism, the use of ethical principles, and romantic love.