Social Environment Shapes the Speed of Cooperation

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Scientific Reports


Geisel School of Medicine


Are cooperative decisions typically made more quickly or slowly than non-cooperative decisions? While this question has attracted considerable attention in recent years, most research has focused on one-shot interactions. Yet it is repeated interactions that characterize most important real-world social interactions. In repeated interactions, the cooperativeness of one's interaction partners (the "social environment") should affect the speed of cooperation. Specifically, we propose that reciprocal decisions (choices that mirror behavior observed in the social environment), rather than cooperative decisions per se, occur more quickly. We test this hypothesis by examining four independent decision time datasets with a total of 2,088 subjects making 55,968 decisions. We show that reciprocal decisions are consistently faster than non-reciprocal decisions: cooperation is faster than defection in cooperative environments, while defection is faster than cooperation in non-cooperative environments. These differences are further enhanced by subjects' previous behavior - reciprocal decisions are faster when they are consistent with the subject's previous choices. Finally, mediation analyses of a fifth dataset suggest that the speed of reciprocal decisions is explained, in part, by feelings of conflict - reciprocal decisions are less conflicted than non-reciprocal decisions, and less decision conflict appears to lead to shorter decision times.