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Selective Cooperation in the Supermarket

Field Experimental Evidence for Indirect Reciprocity

Abstract

Numerous laboratory experiments suggest that mechanisms of indirect reciprocity might account for human cooperation. However, conclusive field data supporting the predictions of indirect reciprocity in everyday life situations is still scarce. Here, we attempt to compensate for this lack by examining the determinants of cooperative behavior in a German supermarket. Our methods were as follows: Confederates of the experimenter lined up at the checkout, apparently to buy a single item. As an act of cooperation, the waiting person in front (the potential helper) could allow the confederate to go ahead. By this means, the potential helper could take a cost (additional waiting time) by providing the confederate with a benefit (saved waiting time). We recorded the potential helpers’ behavior and the number of items they purchased as a quantitative measure proportional to the confederate’s benefit. Moreover, in a field experimental design, we varied the confederates’ image by manipulating the item they purchased (beer vs. water). As predicted, the more waiting time they could save, the more likely the confederates were to receive cooperation. This relationship was moderated by the confederates’ image. Cost-to-benefit ratios were required to be more favorable for beer-purchasing individuals to receive cooperation. Our results demonstrate that everyday human cooperation can be studied unobtrusively in the field and that cooperation among strangers is selective in a way that is consistent with current models of indirect reciprocity.

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Acknowledgments

FL receives a scholarship from the German National Academic Foundation. The authors would like to thank Marian Luckhof for assistance with data collection and Caroline Seer for valuable discussions.

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Correspondence to Florian Lange.

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Lange, F., Eggert, F. Selective Cooperation in the Supermarket. Hum Nat 26, 392–400 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-015-9240-9

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Keywords

  • Cooperation
  • Indirect reciprocity
  • Field experiment
  • Reputation