I Expect You to Be Like Me: Reciprocity Effects in Social Cognition

Ruining Jin

August 17, 2023

For generations, people have tended to believe that our behaviors are shaped by observing how others behave. This is because humans are social creatures who learn from the people around us. People see how others behave and imitate their behavior. Many well-known cognitive and sociological theories support this line of thinking, such as the social learning theory [1], cognitive appraisal theory [2], and ecological systems theory [3]. However, recently, a study suggested an emphasis on the opposite direction: one’s own behavior can have a significant impact on how one perceives the behavior of others [4]. This is because one’s behavior influences expectations about how others should behave [5].

In the study [4], the authors investigated how people form expectations about others’ behavior and how those expectations, in turn, influence evaluations of fairness and trustworthiness. In four experiments based on participants’ participation and performance in economic games (Ultimatum Game, Public Goods Game, Trust Game), the authors found people’s expectations and evaluations are rooted in reciprocity. The participants expect others to treat them the same way they treat others. They are more likely to see others as generous if they are generous. And if they are selfish, they are more likely to see others as selfish. The study also found that people tend to trust those who behave as they themselves do (similarly generous or similarly selfish), regardless of the economic outcome [6].

Illustration. Like-minded people trusting each other (AI-generated with Stable Diffusion)

From a mindsponge information processing perspective, prior knowledge and experience as the collection of stored information would become references for future decision-making during the information filtering process [7]. In other words, if a person is selfish, that person tends to use personal memories and experiences of selfish acts as references to judge new information in the infosphere. If another person’s decision-making is also based heavily on self-interest, the information that person offers will align with one’s selfish mindset. Thus, like-minded self-interested people may choose to trust each other, even though that would potentially jeopardize their interests.

An example in a political context is the Chinese right-wing nationalists’ endorsement of former US president Donald Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 elections [8]. Trump’s “America First” and “MAGA” political agenda resonated well with Chinese surging nationalists and their calls for a tougher China diplomatic relationship (reflected by the so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”). This endorsement attitude happened even though they were aware to certain degrees that Trump viewed China as a competitor of the US and used anti-China slogans in his political rallies multiple times.

The political maneuver resembles the situation where Kingfisher’s preference in decision-making in “Mansion” is presented [9]: “Then he racks his brain for something less taxing.”


[1] Bandura A, Walters RH. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs Prentice Hall.

[2] Richard L, Susan F. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Springer Publishing Company.

[3] Bronfenbrenner U. (2005). Ecological systems theory. In: Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development (pp. 106–173). Sage Publications Ltd.

[4] Bogdan PC, et al. (2023). Social Expectations are Primarily Rooted in Reciprocity: An Investigation of Fairness, Cooperation, and Trustworthiness. Cognitive Science, 47(8), e13326.

[5] Lazarus RS. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. McGraw-Hill.

[6] Yates D. (2023). Selfish or Generous? Your Behavior Dictates Your Perception of Others. Neuroscience News.

[7] Vuong QH. (2023). Mindsponge Theory. De Gruyter.

[8] Lo A. (2020). Who wants Donald Trump to win? Surprisingly, many Chinese. South China Morning Post.

[9] Vuong QH. (2022). The Kingfisher Story Collection. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BG2NNHY6

tags:   social cognition