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Principled Defection: On Caring that Fails to Activate and Non-Cooperative Behavior

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Document pages: 98 pages

Abstract: Many theories identify selfishness and lack of caring about others as the fundamental impediments to cooperation. We highlight a different source of non-cooperative behavior: People’s caring can be abundant but fail to activate. We present an attribution-based, game-theoretic model in which people may defect rather than cooperate even if they place little weight on self-interest, place much weight on reciprocating others, and recognize that they have been treated well. In the model, people consider others’ motives and often perceive two broad possibilities. Someone may treat another individual well out of genuine kindness or out of tactical self-interest, hoping to elicit and profit from a reciprocal response. The model formalizes the notion that when people construe positive treatment they receive as “just business” (i.e., motivated by tactical self-interest), their caring remains dormant, and they do not reciprocate. When they interpret positive treatment they receive as genuinely kind, their caring is activated, may be substantial, and they may reciprocate. We term non-reciprocity engendered by attributions of tactical motives “principled defection,” and we experimentally corroborate its prevalence. Our work indicates that existing research underestimates people’s taste for reciprocity. It yields novel perspectives on generosity in ultimatum games and unraveling in finitely-repeated interactions. It stands in opposition to the influential social heuristics hypothesis; a synthesis of our analysis and related theorizing on the norm of self-interest, reactive egoism, and sophisticated social inference offers an alternative explanation for findings cited as support for social heuristics.

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