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Trusting Strangers

UCSB Researchers Study Trust Between Strangers


Wednesday, November 14, 2012
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For more than 20 years, researchers have been asking the question: Why are people so nice to strangers but so mean to people that they know? Evolutionarily, it doesn’t make much sense. However, data has consistently shown people’s willingness to warm up to strangers and punish those they know have a bad reputation.

Over the years, evolutionary psychologists have created two opposing theories to explain the phenomenon. One theory, called Social Exchange Theory, reasons that our ancestors lived in small communities and therefore were likely to encounter anyone they met more than once. Gaining the trust of strangers is evolutionarily advantageous because it creates the opportunity to foster a mutually beneficial relationship. Conversely, if it is known that someone has a history of cheating, it is unlikely that trusting them will be beneficial.

The opposing theory is the Group Cooperation Theory. It says that trust and kindness within a group is evolutionarily advantageous because a group plagued with derisiveness and mistrust is unlikely to survive and reproduce. Under this theory, individuals with a bad reputation would be punished for causing rancor within the group.

Past data has been used to support both theories. Max Krasnow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, researchers at UCSB’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology, set out to pit the theories against each other in a study published recently.

Participants in the study interacted with others whom they believed to be real people but were actually computers following a script. Test subjects invested fake money with the computer simulators, and their investments would either be returned with interest or stolen from them. Predictably, the participants were likely to reinvest their money with those who returned their investment and unlikely to reinvest with those who stole their money. Also, participants were unlikely to invest with others whom they knew had stolen from others. However, even when the computer character had a history of stealing from others, participants would still invest with them if they had reliable information that they wouldn’t be cheated.

The researchers concluded that their data supports the Social Exchange Theory. They reason that if the participants were trying to preserve the unity of the group, they would punish cheaters despite the possibility of individual benefits.

Overall, the study showed that humans have highly evolved mechanisms for interacting with others and knowing whom to trust. These mechanisms surely contribute to a harmonious society. Unfortunately, empirical data suggests that our kindness is ultimately motivated by selfishness.

Comments

Independent Discussion Guidelines

This seems to me to be a very poorly written story.

The researchers decided on the Social Exchange Theory that " Conversely, if it is known that someone has a history of cheating, it is unlikely that trusting them will be beneficial."

Yet they did trust the other who had cheated, so long as they felt they themselves would not be cheated. These paragraphs here are contradictory:

"However, even when the computer character had a history of stealing from others, participants would still invest with them if they had reliable information that they wouldn’t be cheated.

The researchers concluded that their data supports the Social Exchange Theory. They reason that if the participants were trying to preserve the unity of the group, they would punish cheaters despite the possibility of individual benefits." ... but they didn't punish the cheaters or at least it wasn't shown in this story.

at_large (anonymous profile)
November 14, 2012 at 3:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Uh . . .Familiarity breeds contempt?

chilldrinfthenight (anonymous profile)
November 14, 2012 at 4:29 p.m. (Suggest removal)

In my experience it is the opposite. People tend to be forgiving of those they know and hostile to the same behavior in those they don't know. Strangers are suspect and family is understood.

RHS (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 9:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

at_large makes a good point. In addition, neither theory supports the false generalization of the question that researchers have supposedly been asking. The implication of that ridiculous question would be that no one is trustworthy but we don't find out they aren't until we get to know them.

Matthew should give up science writing and just provide a link to the study so we can read it for ourselves.

JayB (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 10:53 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Here's a link to the UCSB press release, which this article thoroughly botched:

http://www.ia.ucsb.edu/pa/display.asp...

JayB (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 11:01 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Notably, the press releases says absolutely nothing about the question that Matthew invented; there is no comparison between strangers and people you know, nor is the debate about trust (that factor was introduced in the study being reported on). The issue is: why do we feel inclined to reward kind strangers and punish mean ones? Since they are strangers, what's in it for us?

JayB (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 11:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Also, what is this drivel? " Unfortunately, empirical data suggests that our kindness is ultimately motivated by selfishness."

ALL behavior is "ultimately motivated" by self-**interest**, at either the personal or the genetic level. There is nothing at all "unfortunate" about this; it is to be rationally expected and is at the core of sciences like psychology and sociology. If the Indy is going to write about sociology and other sciences, it should find someone who understands science and doesn't inject such silly woo woo value judgments.

JayB (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 11:19 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Back to at_large's question about how the study actually supports Social Exchange Theory, completely contrary to what one might expect from this horribly botched Indy article. From the press release:

"If our minds are designed to seek out the benefits of cooperative relationships with others, then participants should have preferred to trust those likely to cooperate with them in particular. On the other hand, if our reputational psychology is designed to support group-wide cohesion and cooperation, the participants should have resisted cooperating with those who defected on other group members."

Since the study showed people trusting those who treated *them* well, even if they were known to have screwed others, it supports Social Exchange Theory over Group Cooperation Theory.

JayB (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 11:26 a.m. (Suggest removal)

One last comment: it's remarkable how this botched article invented a negative final note when the tone of the researcher quoted by the press release was the opposite:

"The human tendencies to care about how a person treats others and to protest bad treatment are not simply a thin veneer of cultural norms atop a cold and calculating core. Rather, they represent fundamental features of a universal human social nature."

JayB (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 11:42 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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