People have systematic expectations linking social relationships to patterns of reciprocal altruism

Abstract | In two-person asymmetric coordination dilemmas, both people are better off if they coordinate, but one person benefits more than the other. When these interactions recur, people can form expectations to balance who is better off over time. What does it mean when asymmetric social interactions recur, and what can we learn from how people solve these dilemmas? We hypothesize that people expect social interactions to recur when two people are in a social relationship, and that knowing about the symmetry of the social relationship influences the stable solution to asymmetric coordination dilemmas over time. We report two experiments where participants read stories and answered questions about social interactions between two people. In Experiment 1, participants infer that two people are in a social relationship when there is a sequence of altruistic interactions between them, and specifically infer an asymmetric relationship when one person always performs the altruistic action, and a symmetric relationship when the two people alternate performing the altruistic action. In Experiment 2, participants equally expect alternating and repeating altruistic actions when the relationship is symmetric, but expect repeating actions (following a precedent) when the relationship is asymmetric. Our results suggest that people are able to use knowledge of relationships to generate shared expectations for coordinating on recurrent altruistic social interactions, and vice versa.