This paper concerns the credibility problem for commitments. Commitments play an important role in cooperative human interactions and can dramatically improve the performance of joint actions by stabilizing expectations, reducing the uncertainty of the interaction, providing reasons to cooperate or improving action coordination. However, commitments can only serve these functions if they are credible in the first place. What is it then that insures the credibility of commitments? To answer this question, we need to provide an account of what motivates us to abide by our commitments. We first discuss two conceptions of the nature of the commitments present in joint action and of the norms that govern them. We contend that while normative considerations may have some motivational force, there are reasons to doubt that they, by themselves, could provide a sufficient motivational basis to fully explain why agents abide by their commitments and thus why their commitments are credible. In the next two sections, we discuss two proposals regarding further sources of motivation, reputation management and social emotions. We argue that while reputation management and social emotions certainly play a role in motivating us to act as committed, there are both theoretical and empirical reasons to think that neither captures the most basic motivational force at work in sustaining commitments. We propose instead that the need to belong, i.e., the need to affiliate with others and form long-lasting bonds with them, is what primarily motivates us to interact and engage with those around us and act so as to preserve and reinforce the bonds we have forged with them. We argue that the need to belong is a more basic proximate motivation for conforming to commitments, in the sense both that affiliative behaviors are evidenced much earlier in human development than either reputation management or social emotions and that the need to belong is at least part of an explanation of why we care for our reputation and why we care about others’ assessments of our behavior.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
 Note that, as a limiting case, the two agents can be one and the same. For instance, when Bratman (1987) argues a future-directed intention involves a characteristic commitment to future action, the agent who forms the future-directed intention is both the author and the recipient of the commitment it involves.
Note that we are not suggesting that this is a project Bratman or Gilbert themselves are engaged in or would condone, only that it is a possibility one could in principle wish to explore.
See Godman et al. (2014) for a similar point regarding Robert Sugden (2000)'s resentment hypothesis according to which we are motivated to meet the expectations of others because we are averse to their resentment. As Godman et al. point out, "it raises the question why others’ resentment should matter to us anyway” (p. 569).
Although Rusch’s and Luege’s results seem to suggest that there are differences between inclinations to cooperate with partners and to cooperate with strangers, these results are in conflict with other studies involving variables of the same type (see Andreoni and Croson 2008 for a review). A possible explanation of the contradictory results could be due to the fact that in Rusch and Luege’s experiments, the agents are not more cooperative with those they perceive as partners for reasons involving preferences or motivations, but what is being manipulated are the agents' expectations (thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to us). One possible answer, though extremely speculative, might be that even in such a case, the NTB can modulate the force with which the expectations of others affect our decisions in this type of game. However, in the absence of further studies along these lines, we can only indicate that the support this evidence provides for our hypothesis is weak.
Certainly, one may wonder why humans have a need to belong that (some) other animal species lack. However, this question seems to fall beyond the scope of psychological explanation and ontogenetic development. Rather, like asking why cold-blooded animals need to warm up under the sun, asking for the origin of the need to belong calls for explanations in terms of the evolutionary history.
Another endogenous mechanism may appeal to a low-level notion of reputation management. Although Silver and Shaw (2018) argue that managing one’s reputation requires high-level capacities (an awareness of the distinction between self and others’ evaluations; and a motivation to achieve positive evaluations from others and assess others’ accurately), one might argue that agents could develop different mechanisms to increase others’ positive beliefs about them without themselves being aware that others could have such beliefs. In principle, one agent could detect a correlation between following the strategies of fulfilling others' expectations and an increment in her success in certain cooperative contexts without realizing that this is due to the increment in their belief that she is a reputable partner. Now the question is what kind of mechanism can increase reputation without one’s awareness of it? Given the high cultural variation of what is considered reputable and the empirical evidence presented above, an inborn capacity for reputation seems to be an implausible solution. Such mechanisms could only rely on some sort of emotional endowment of the type analyzed in Sect. 5 or 7. Thus, this route seems to collapse into some of the other alternatives presented in this paper.
Alexander, R. D. (1987). The biology of moral systems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Andreoni, J., & Croson, R. (2008). Partners versus Strangers: Random rematching in public goods experiments. In C. R. Plott & V. L. Smitt (Eds.), Handbook of experimental economics results (776-783) (Vol. 1). Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Barclay, P., & Willer, R. (2007). Partner choice creates competitive altruism in humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274, 749–753.
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.
Baumeister, R. F., Stillwell, A. M., & Heatherton, T. F. (1994). Guilt: An interpersonal approach. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 243–267.
Bicchieri, C. (1997). Learning to Cooperate. In C. Bicchieri, R. C. Jeffrey, & B. Skyrms (Eds.), The dynamics of norms (pp. 17–46). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bicchieri, C. (2006). The grammar of society: The nature and dynamics of social norms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bratman, M. E. (1987). Intention, plans, and practical reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bratman, M. E. (1992). Shared cooperative activity. The Philosophical Review, 101(2), 327–341.
Bratman, M. E. (2009). Shared agency. In C. Mantzavinos (Ed.), Philosophy of the social sciences: Philosophical theory and scientific practice (pp. 41–59). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bratman, M. E. (2014). Shared agency: A planning theory of acting together. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brooks, J., & Lewis, M. (1976). Infants’ responses to strangers: Midget, adult, and child. Child Development, 47, 323–332.
Brownell, C. A. (2011). Early developments in joint action. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2(2), 193–211.
Butterfill, S. A., & Sebanz, N. (2011). Joint action: What is shared? Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2(2), 137–146.
Carpenter, M. (2009). Just how joint is joint action in infancy? Topics in Cognitive Science, 1(2), 380–392.
Chang, L. J., Smith, A., Dufwenberg, M., & Sanfey, A. G. (2011). Triangulating the neural, psychological, and economic bases of guilt aversion. Neuron, 70(3), 560–572.
Chaudhuri, A. (2011). Sustaining cooperation in laboratory public goods experiments: a selective survey of the literature. Experimental Economics, 14(1), 47–83.
Cheng, Y., Lee, S. Y., Chen, H. Y., Wang, P., & Decety, J. (2012). Voice and emotion processing in the human neonatal brain. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24, 1411–1419.
Chevallier, C., Kohls, G., Troiani, V., Brodkin, E. S., & Schultz, R. T. (2012). The social motivation theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 231–239.
Cialdini, R. B., Schaller, M., Houlihan, D., Arps, K., Fultz, J., & Beaman, A. L. (1987). Empathy-based helping: Is it selflessly or selfishly motivated? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(4), 749–758.
Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2018). Interpersonal harm aversion as a necessary foundation for morality: A developmental neuroscience perspective. Development and Psychopathology, 30(1), 153–164.
De Haan, M., Belsky, J., Reid, V., Volein, A., & Johnson, M. H. (2004). Maternal personality and infants’ neural and visual responsivity to facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(7), 1209–1218.
De Hooge, I. E., Zeelenberg, M., & Breugelmans, S. M. (2007). Moral sentiments and cooperation: Differential influences of shame and guilt. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5), 1025–1042.
Dreber, A., Rand, D. G., Fudenberg, D., & Nowak, M. A. (2008). Winners don’t Punish. Nature, 452, 348–351.
Engelmann, J. M., Herrmann, E., & Tomasello, M. (2016). Preschoolers affect others’ reputations through prosocial gossip. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 34(3), 447–460.
Everett, J. A., Faber, N. S., & Crockett, M. (2015). Preferences and beliefs in ingroup favoritism. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 9, 15.
Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454(7208), 107.
Fehr, E., & Rockenbach, B. (2003). Detrimental effects of sanctions on human altruism. Nature, 422, 137–140.
FeldmanHall, O., Dalgleish, T., Evans, D., & Mobbs, D. (2015). Empathic concern drives costly altruism. NeuroImage, 105, 347–356.
Frank, R. (1988). Passions within reason. New York: Norton.
Gifford-Smith, M., & Brownell, C. (2003). Childhood peer relationships: Social acceptance, friendships & peer networks. Journal of School Psychology, 41, 235–284.
Gilbert, M. (1992). On social facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gilbert, M. (2006). Rationality in collective action. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 36(1), 3–17.
Gilbert, M. (2009). Shared intention and personal intentions. Philosophical Studies, 144, 167–187.
Godman, M. (2013). Why we do things together: The social motivation for joint action. Philosophical Psychology, 26(4), 588–603.
Godman, M., Nagatsu, M., & Salmela, M. (2014). The social motivation hypothesis for prosocial behavior. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 44(5), 563–587.
Gräfenhain, M., Behne, T., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Young children’s understanding of joint commitments. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1430–1443.
Haley, K. J., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2005). Nobody’s watching? Subtle cues affect generosity an anonymous economic game. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 245–256.
Hamlin, J. K. (2015). The infantile origins of our moral brains. In J. Decety & T. Wheatley (Eds.), The moral brain—Multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 105–122). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hamlin, J. K., & Wynn, K. (2011). Young infants prefer prosocial to antisocial others. Cognitive Development, 26(1), 30–39.
Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature, 450, 557–559.
Hareli, S., & Parkinson, B. (2008). What’s social about social emotions? Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 38(2), 131–156.
Harris, P. L., Olthof, T., Terwogt, M. M., & Hardman, C. E. (1987). Children’s knowledge of the situations that provoke emotion. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 10(3), 319–343.
Hay, D. F., Nash, A., & Pedersen, J. (1983). Interaction between six-month-old peers. Child Development, 54, 557–562.
Hay, D. F., Payne, A., & Chadwick, A. (2004). Peer relations in childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(1), 84–108.
Heintz, C., Karabegovic, M., & Molnar, A. (2016). The co-evolution of honesty and strategic vigilance. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1503.
Howes, C. (1996). The earliest friendships. In W. M. Bukowski, A. F. Newcomb, & W. W. Hartup (Eds.), The company they keep: Friendship in childhood and adolescence (pp. 66–86). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Jacobson, J. L. (1981). The role of inanimate objects in early peer interaction. Child Development, 52, 618–626.
Kahneman, D., & Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Ketelaar, T., & Au, W. T. (2003). The effects of feelings of guilt on the behaviour of uncooperative individuals in repeated social bargaining games: An affect-as information interpretation of the role of emotion in social interaction. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 429–453.
Lakin, J. L., & Chartrand, T. L. (2003). Using nonconscious behavioral mimicry to create affiliation and rapport. Psychological Sciences, 14, 334–339.
Leary, J. L., & Allen, A. B. (2011). Belonging motivation: Establishing, maintaining, and repairing relational value. In D. Dunning (Ed.), Social Motivation (pp. 37–56). New York: Psychology Press.
Ledyard, J. (1995a). Public goods: A survey of experimental research. In A. Roth & J. Kagel (Eds.), Handbook of Experimental Economics (pp. 111–194). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ledyard, O. (1995b). Public goods: some experimental results. In J. Kagel & A. Roth (Eds.), Handbook of experimental economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Leimgruber, K. L., Shaw, A., Santos, L. R., & Olson, K. R. (2012). Young children are more generous when others are aware of their actions. PLoS ONE, 7(10), e48292.
Lergetporer, P., Angerer, S., Glätzle-Rützler, D., & Suttera, M. (2014). Third-party punishment increases cooperation in children through (misaligned) expectations and conditional cooperation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(19), 6916–6921.
Lewis, M., Sullivan, M. W., Stanger, C., & Weiss, M. (1989). Self development and self-conscious emotions. Child Development, 60, 146–156.
Lo Presti, P. (2013). Situating norms and jointness of social interaction. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 9(1), 225–248.
Marchant, A. (2014). Neonates do not feel pain: A critical review of the evidence. Bioscience Horizon, 7, 1–9.
Michael, J. (2011). Shared emotions and joint action. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2(2), 355–373.
Michael, J., & Pacherie, E. (2015). On commitments and other uncertainty reduction devices. Journal of Social Ontology, 1(1), 89–120.
Michael, J., & Salice, A. (2016). The sense of commitment in human–robot interaction. International Journal of Social Robotics, 9(5), 755–763.
Michael, J., Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2016). The sense of commitment: a minimal approach. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1–11.
Michael, J., & Székely, M. (2018). The developmental origins of commitment. Journal of Social Philosophy, 49(1), 106–123.
Mills, R. S. (2005). Taking stock of the developmental literature on shame. Developmental Review, 25(1), 26–63.
Mills, R. S., Arbeau, K. A., Lall, D. I., & De Jaeger, A. E. (2010). Parenting and child characteristics in the prediction of shame in early and middle childhood. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46(4), 500–528.
Moore, G. A. (1903). Principia ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nelissen, R. M. A., & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). When guilt evokes self-punishment: Evidence for the existence of a Dobby effect. Emotion, 9, 118–122.
Newcomb, A. F., & Bagwell, C. L. (1995). Children’s friendship relations: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 306–347. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.2.306.
Nielsen, M. (2006). Copying actions and copying outcomes: Social learning through the second year. Developmental Psychology, 42, 555–565.
Nielsen, M. (2009). The imitative behavior of children and chimpanzees: A window on the transmission of cultural traditions. Revue de primatologie, 1, 254.
Nowak, M. A., & Sigmund, K. (2005). Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature, 437, 1291–1298.
Over, H. (2016). The origins of belonging: Social motivation in infants and young children. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society: Biology, 371, 20150072. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0072.
Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2009). Priming third-party ostracism increases affiliative imitation in children. Developmental Sciences, 12, F1–F8. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00820.x.
Pacherie, E. (2011). Framing joint action. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2(2), 173–192.
Parisette-Sparks, A., Bufferd, S. J., & Klein, D. N. (2017). Parental predictors of children’s shame and guilt at age 6 in a multimethod, longitudinal study. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 46(5), 721–731.
Piazza, J., Bering, J. M., & Ingram, G. (2011). Princess Alice is watching you: Children’s belief in an invisible person inhibits cheating. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109(3), 311–320.
Rakoczy, H. (2006). Pretend play and the development of collective intentionality. Cognitive Systems Research, 7, 113–127.
Rakoczy, H., Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2008). The sources of normativity: Young children’s awareness of the normative structure of games. Developmental Psychology, 44(3), 875.
Rochat, P., Broesch, T., & Jayne, K. (2012). Social awareness and early self-recognition. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(3), 1491–1497.
Rochat, P., Querido, J. G., & Striano, T. (1999). Emerging sensitivity to the timing and structure of protoconversation in early infancy. Developmental Psychology, 35, 950–957.
Roth, A. S. (2004). Shared agency and contralateral commitments. The Philosophical Review, 113(3), 359–410.
Rusch, H., & Luetge, C. (2016). Spillovers from coordination to cooperation: Evidence for the interdependence hypothesis? Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 10(4), 284–296.
Sally, D. (1995). Conversation and cooperation in social dilemmas a meta-analysis of experiments from 1958 to 1992. Rationality and Society, 7(1), 58–92.
Salmela, M., & Nagatsu, M. (2016). Collective emotions and joint action. Journal of Social Ontology, 2(1), 33–57.
Scanlon, T. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schelling, T. C. (1960). The strategy of conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sebanz, N., Bekkering, H., & Knoblich, G. (2006). Joint action: Bodies and minds moving together. Trends in Cognitive Science, 10, 70–76.
Shaw, A., & Olson, K. (2015). Whose idea is it anyway? The importance of reputation in acknowledgement. Developmental Science, 18, 502–509.
Silver, I. M., & Shaw, A. (2018). Pint-sized public relations: The development of reputation management. Trends in cognitive sciences, 22(4), 277–279.
Siposova, B., Tomasello, M., & Carpenter, M. (2018). Communicative eye contact signals a commitment to cooperate for young children. Cognition, 179, 192–201.
Skinner, A. L., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2019). Childhood experiences and intergroup biases among children. Social Issues and Policy Review, 13(1), 211–240.
Stefani, L. H., & Camaioni, L. (1983). Effects of familiarity on peer interaction in the first year of life. Early Child Development and Care, 11, 45–54.
Strandberg, C. (2004). In defence of the open question argument. The Journal of Ethics, 8(2), 179–196.
Sugden, R. (2000). The motivating power of expectations. In J. Nida-Rümelin & W. Spohn (Eds.), Rationality, rules, and structure (pp. 103–129). Dordrecht: Springer.
Székely, M., & Michael, J. (2018). Investment in commitment: Persistence in a joint action is enhance by the perception of a partner’s effort. Cognition, 174, 37–42.
Tollefsen, D. (2005). Let’s pretend! Children and joint action. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 35(1), 75–97.
Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Tomasello, M., & Carpenter, M. (2007). Shared intentionality. Developmental Sciences, 10, 121–125.
Tomasello, M., & Rakoczy, H. (2003). What makes human cognition unique? From individual to shared to collective intentionality. Mind and Language, 18(2), 121–147.
Trevarthen, C., & Aitken, K. J. (2001). Infant intersubjectivity: Research, theory, and clinical applications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 3–48.
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 46(1), 35–57.
Vaish, A. (2018). The prosocial functions of early social emotions: The case of guilt. Current opinion in psychology, 20, 25–29.
Vaish, A., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2016). The early emergence of guilt-motivated prosocial behavior. Child Development, 87(6), 1772–1782.
Van Vugt, M., Roberts, G., & Hardy, C. (2007). Competitive altruism: Development of reputation-based cooperation in groups. In R. Dunbar & L. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 531–540). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Vesper, C., Butterfill, S., Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2010). A minimal architecture for joint action. Neural Networks, 23, 998–1003.
Warneken, F., Chen, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Cooperative activities in young children and chimpanzees. Child Development, 77(3), 640–663.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and cooperation at 14 months of age. Infancy, 11, 271–294.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1785–1788.
Young, G., & Lewis, M. (1979). Effects of familiarity and maternal attention on infant peer relations. Merrill Palmer Quarterly, 25, 105–119.
Zahavi, A., & Zahavi, A. (1997). The handicap principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., & Wagner, E. (1992). Development of concern for others. Developmental Psychology, 28, 126–136.
We would like to thank John Michael and two anonymous referees for their valuable comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper. We would also like to thank the participants to the workshop “Layers of Collective Intentionality” held in Vienna in August 2018, the participants to the workshop “Human–Robot Joint Action: Refining the understanding of joint action through an interdisciplinary perspective” held in Paris in September 2018 and the members of the Philosophy Department at the University of Granada. This research was supported by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche [Grant Number ANR-16-CE33-0017] and by the EUR Frontiers in Cognition [Grant Number ANR-17-EURE-0017].
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Fernández Castro, V., Pacherie, E. Joint actions, commitments and the need to belong. Synthese 198, 7597–7626 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02535-0
- Joint action
- Practical rationality
- Social normativity
- Social emotions
- Need to belong