Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reciprocity or Social Responsibility?

Joey and Phoebe famously disagreed on whether or not there could ever be such a thing as a selfless act? (See friends season 5 episode 4). The defining factors behind seemingly altruistic behaviour is an interesting topic, one many sociologists, psychologists etc have explored. 

‘There is no moral, more indispensible than that of returning a kindness’ This quote underpins a very popular vie, most notably emphasized by Goldner, that within society there exists a norm of reciprocity. This norm is considered ‘a basic part of the behavioral repertoire of humans’ one that determines much of our social behaviour. Simply put, when someone does you a favour it bestows upon you an obligation to return the favour. This is a powerful persuasion tactic, one that has been capitalised on by profiteers, examples including the ‘freebie’ and special privileges seem like generous free gifts, however, despite the lack of perceived expectation of return this is none other than the reciprocity rule in action.

Is it true then to analyse much of our behaviour simply in terms of obligations to return favours rather than obligation to others? Whatever happened to altruism and views of humanity as intrinsically valuable therefore worth helping? 

Studies have been carried out by the likes of Rushton & Berkowitz who wanted to emphasise the existence of an additional norm in society -  Social Responsibility. They claimed that ‘civilized man occasionally wants to help other people because it is his duty and responsibility to do so’

The following details are taken from a study by Berkowitz and Daniels which looked at the potential link with social responsibility and dependency


80 girls were selected from the introductory psychology course at the University of Wisconsin.

To ensure the findings of the experiments could be compared to levels of social responsibility, a revised version of the Harris social responsibility scale was used.

This is a few examples of the items that constituted the revised social responsibility scale:

1. It is always important to finish anything that you have started?
(Agree or disagree?)
2. It is no use worrying about current events or public affairs; I can't do anything about them anyway.
(Agree or disagree?)

Study 1:

Each instance of the experiment involved 6 subjects. Pairs were created, two of the pairs consisted of one ‘real’ subject and one paid participant, the other pair consisted of two real participants. Each participant was given a letter cancellation task – they were told that the experimenter was only interested in how long it took them to complete the task and that once they had completed their task they could assist their partner if they wished.

Of the three pairs – the 2 with the paid participant spent 10 minutes on their task and then spent the last 7 minutes helping their partner, (prior help variable) the other pair spent roughly the same amount of time in total working individually on the tasks (no prior help).

The second phase of the task involved a productivity test. The pairs were mixed up, ensuring all 4 of the real participants were partnered together. They were told that one person in the pair was the ‘supervisor’ who would write instruction on how to make a paper box, the other girl would be the ‘worker’, making the box based on the instructions. Introducing the dependency variable – one of the pairs was told their partners rating would depend on their productivity, the others were told that their productivity would not effect their partners rating.

The findings of both phases were recorded and questionnaires were completed involving the social responsibility scale, the results are below:

This table is an analysis of the dependency and help variables used in correlation to productivity and social responsibility score

High Dependency
Low Dependency
Prior help
No Prior help

Berkowitz stated that: ‘The only correlation with productivity reaching statistical significance was the one in the High Dependency-Prior Help group, the condition in which the social responsibility norm presumably was most salient.’

The hypothesis being that the girls that had been helped were more aware of social responsibility and therefore given their partners dependency, they viewed high productivity as responsible behaviour.
Conversely with the high dependency but no prior help, productivity was significantly less perhaps due to ‘the absence of assistance making relatively irresponsible behaviour permissible for them.’

However, could this instead be nothing more than another example of that pesky reciprocity norm?

One could argue that the helped subjects felt a generalised feeling of obligation to repay the help they had previous experienced therefore motivating them to work hard for the latter person.

The findings of Berkowitz and Daniels provided us with a potential alternative analysis of social behaviour – however, their research is largely inconclusive and needs further research, so for now watch out for those not so free freebies - reciprocity is everywhere!

References :
The norm of reciprocity Goldner 1960
Affecting the Salience of the Social Responsibility Norm: Berkowitz & Daniels 1964
Intrinsic and Instrumental Reciprocity: An Experimental Study 2012
Friends season 5 episode 4 

By Clementine Parker

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