Reciprocity is a foundational concept of cooperative societies with roles in face-to-face and anonymous transactions. In essence, we trust others, follow social norms, and abide by formal laws with the expectation that others will do the same. Absent some understanding that others will also play by the rules of the game, however, we may no longer feel compelled to abide by those rules ourselves. Numerous experimental studies infer that reciprocity plays just such a role. Curiously, however, we are unaware of any attempts to operationalize the concept in a direct way. We attempt to remedy this lacuna by introducing a series of original survey items that are geared toward tapping the belief in reciprocal respect for basic rights and liberties by a range of groups. Data from an internet-based panel reveal that the belief in rights reciprocity is not widespread, moves with the political context, and is shaped by a variety of dispositional measures. Reciprocity, as likely another dimension of threat, builds political tolerance—a relationship which we confirm with both panel and experimental evidence.
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Most discussions of reciprocity rely on behavioral inferences in nature, commonly derived from trust games that involve an exchange between two individuals (e.g., Carlin and Love 2013; Van den Bos et al., 2009; Fehr and Gӓchter, 2000; Fehr and Gintis 2007; Schubert and Lambsdorff 2014; Youngs, 1986; cf. Eisenberger et al., 2004).
The literature on political tolerance has long suffered from similar such ambiguities. As Hurwitz and Mondak (2002) note, there are multiple ways to interpret an individual’s reluctance to extend political rights to another individual or group. Simple group animus may be at play, but it is perhaps equally plausible that such a response indicates an across-the-board distaste for a particular type of political expression (e.g., rallies) (see also Verkuyten and Yogeeswaran, 2017). Or, we might add, expressions of intolerance might also be conflated with an abiding concern for democratic norms and buy-in to a system of reciprocal rights extension.
Content-controlled or “self-selected” approaches to measuring tolerance are not without drawbacks, however, as it is often thought to encourage respondents to focus on extremist groups, thereby driving down observed levels of tolerance (Lee, 2014). Content-controlled measures of political tolerance have also been criticized on the grounds that they do not account for “justified” or “principled” intolerance (Lee, 2014; Petersen et al., 2011). The present study seeks to remedy this particular issue by measuring perceptions of rights reciprocity.
It is possible that people understand “your rights” to be theirs personally rather than about people like them. Future iterations of reciprocity research should systematically explore this possibility.
To bring the sample closer to national distributions, we employed raking weights incorporating education, gender, age, and race (even though weighted results do not differ from unweighted estimates). Moreover, our partisan distribution in both waves closely matches other high-quality estimates: our sample is 46% Democratic (including leaners), 19% independent, and 35% Republican. In wave 2, our sample shifted very slightly to 45% Democrats, 18% independents, and 37% Republicans, perhaps showing some losers’ fatigue. In wave 3, the same was 42% Democratic, 18% independent, and 40% Republican.
The data and code necessary to replicate the results detailed in this article are available here:
See the Appendix Figure A1 and accompanying discussion to see how expected reciprocity varies across least-liked groups.
A factor analysis of these four items indicates that they hang together with an Eigenvalue for the first factor of 2.1. At the same time, the personal threat and reciprocity measures have rather high uniqueness scores (0.61 for personal threat and 0.79 for reciprocity), suggesting that while related they are capturing different aspects of the common concept.
A discussion in the Appendix (p. 10 with Figure A3) discusses whether feelings toward the group are linked to expected reciprocity, conditional on selecting them as their least-liked group for all partisans.
A post-hoc power analysis was conducted using G × Power 188.8.131.52. A sample size of 284 was used for the power analysis. Our baseline model included six predictors. The alpha level used was p < 0.05. Given the size of the effect of the treatment on expected reciprocity (f2 = 0.007), the statistical power was 0.299. Of course, this means that our test is underpowered. On the other hand, this exercise also serves to underscore the fact that the effect of answering a battery of tolerance questions on reciprocity expectations is extraordinarily small, if it exists at all.
To be clear, Mouritsen and Olsen (2013) are specifically referring to European societies, but the argument could be made that much the same process may be unfolding in the United States.
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A previous version of this article was presented at the 2018 annual meeting of the MPSA, Palmer House, Chicago, April 5–8. We thank James Gibson and George Marcus for their helpful comments. Code and data to replicate the analyses are available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/RCMBRP.
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Djupe, P.A., Neiheisel, J.R. The Dimensions and Effects of Reciprocity in Political Tolerance Judgments. Polit Behav 44, 895–914 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09748-0
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