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See Inside April/May/June 2009

How Conflicts Escalate: Overreacting to Perceived Slights

People punish one another for stinginess more than they reward for generosity

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” we say, and “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Conventional wisdom and decades of research point to the universal human tendency to reciprocate, responding to good or bad acts in kind. But if people only give as good as they get, how do conflicts escalate?

The answer, according to recent University of Chicago research, is that positive and negative reciprocity are not symmetrical: we retaliate against selfishness more than we reward generosity—even when the slights are only illusory.

Researchers led by psychologist Boaz Keysar asked participants to play a “dictator game,” in which one player acts as a dictator and decides how to split a sum of money with a second player. One group of dictators started with $100 and gave a portion to the second player; the other group of dictators started with no money but took part of $100 from their partner. Later, when participants rated the dictators’ generosity, they judged the taking group inordinately more harshly than the giving group. “We found if I give you $50, you think I’m more generous than if I take just $30 from you, which is mind-boggling,” Keysar says. Furthermore, takers do not realize how greedy they appear to those on the receiving end.

These skewed judgments led to increasing selfishness with each interaction: when participants switched roles, the new dictators responded to seemingly greedy splits with less generosity themselves, the pattern continuing with each subsequent role reversal.

To stop such downward spirals, the research suggests, it is not enough to give back what you took. “To undo a negative action,” Keysar observes, “you have to go beyond reciprocating
in kind.”

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "More Tit Than Tat".

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