Different motivators to do good don't drown each other out, the team reports, adding that people generally want to help those around them.
The findings help cement our understanding of reciprocity and prosocial behavior in the complex societal contexts of today. It's also a hopeful reminder in these strange and trying times that deep down, we all want to make life better for everyone.
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We all have four broad categories of motivators for which to help those around us: doing a kindness in return for someone who helped us out, doing something nice for someone we've seen helping a third person out, doing good as a response to people in our social circles who might be impressed with or reward that behavior, and as a way to "pay it forward" -- to help someone if somebody else has done something nice for us.
The team explains that these four motivators could be at odds with one another. For example, we could prioritize rewarding someone who helped us out before to the detriment of others who might need assistance more than that person. The interplay between these four motivators during our social interactions has not been studied, however.
But there are grounds for hope. The authors report that in their experiment, people overwhelmingly chose to be generous to others, and even if they were complete strangers, even in situations where their motivators could create conflicts of interests.
"We wanted to do an exhaustive study to see what the effects of those motivations would be when combined — because they are combined in the real world, where people are making choices about how generous or kind to be with one another," said David Melamed, lead author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.
The study included 700 participants and was designed to put them in a variety of situations where different motivators might compete. Participants took part in online interactions where they had to decide how much of a 10-point endowment they wanted to give other people. They were informed that these points would have a monetary value at the end of the study. This way, giving points away had a cost for the participants.
"[Prosocial behavior] means doing something for someone else at a cost to yourself," Melamed said. "So one example would be paying for the person behind you's order at the coffee shop. Or right now, wearing your mask in public. It's a cost to you; it's uncomfortable. But you contribute to the public good by wearing it and not spreading the virus."
"In the real world, the conditions under which people are nice to each other are not isolated — people are embedded in their networks, and they're going about their daily lives and coming into contact with things that will affect their decisions."
Melamed says he expected to see the different motivators 'crowd' one another out. For example, a person focusing on giving back help they received might be less inclined towards the other motivators.
However, they found that "while [there is] some minor variation in how a given form of reciprocity might affect other forms," people overwhelmingly showed an inclination towards helping others in all scenarios (each of which emphasized one type or combination of reciprocity types).
Melamed notes that from an evolutionary perspective, such behavior is very curious, as it decreases an individual's fitness to boost that of others. Having it so deeply ingrained in our nature then shows the importance social relations played during our evolution. It also shows the extent to which they helped shape our cultures and civilizations.
Studying our prosocial behavior can also help us better understand it in other species such as bees and ants.
The paper "The robustness of reciprocity: Experimental evidence that each form of reciprocity is robust to the presence of other forms of reciprocity" has been published in the journal Science Advances.