Generous acts have contrasting meanings in equal versus hierarchical social relationships

What expectations do acts of generosity create for future social interactions? In online behavioral experiments presenting human observers (N = 1159 English-speaking adults in the United States) with naturalistic vignettes, we find that knowing about the structure (equal or hierarchical) of an existing social relationship markedly reshapes people’s expectations for sequences of generous acts. Notably, people do not always expect reciprocal generosity. In hierarchical relationships, people expect the opposite — that the same person will repeat the generous act, following a precedent. These expectations are governed by abstract rules, tailored to specific cultural scripts, affect how people feel about generous acts, and can be used to communicate the desired structure of relationships.