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Social Behavior: Interacting with Others

15 January, 2016 - 09:15

Because we interact with and influence each other every day, we have developed the ability to make these interactions proceed efficiently and effectively. We cooperate with other people to gain outcomes that we could not obtain on our own, and we exchange goods, services, and other benefits with other people. These behaviors are essential for survival in any society (Kameda, Takezawa, & Hastie, 2003; Kameda, Takezawa, Tindale, & Smith, 2002).

The sharing of goods, services, emotions, and other social outcomes is known as social exchange. Social rewards (the positive outcomes that we give and receive when we interact with others) include such benefits as attention, praise, affection, love, and financial support. Social costs (the negative outcomes that we give and receive when we interact with others), on the other hand, include, for instance, the frustrations that accrue when disagreements with others develop, the guilt that results if we perceive that we have acted inappropriately, and the effort involved in developing and maintaining harmonious interpersonal relationships.

Imagine a first-year student at college or university who is trying to decide whether or not to join a student club. Joining the club has costs, in terms of the dues that have to be paid, the need to make friends with each of the other club members and to attend club meetings, and so forth. On the other hand, there are the potential benefits of group membership, including having a group of friends with similar interests and a social network to help find activities to participate in. To determine whether or not to join, the student has to weigh both the social and the material costs and benefits before coming to a conclusion (Moreland & Levine, 2006).

People generally prefer to maximize their own outcomes by attempting to gain as many social rewards as possible and by attempting to minimize their social costs. Such behavior is consistent with the goal of protecting and enhancing the self. But although people do behave according to the goals of self-concern, these goals are tempered by other-concern: the goals of respecting, accepting, and cooperating with others. As a result, social exchange is generally fair and equitable, at least in the long run. Imagine, for example, that someone asks you to do a favor for them, and you do it. If they were only concerned about their own self-enhancement, they might simply accept the favor without any thought of paying you back. Yet both you and they would realize that you would most certainly expect them to be willing to do the same type of favor for you, should you ask them at some later time.

One of the outcomes of humans living together in small groups over thousands of years is that people have learned to cooperate by giving benefits to those who are in need, with the expectation of a return of benefits at a future time. This mutual, and generally equitable, exchange of benefits is known as reciprocal altruism. An individual who is temporarily sick or injured will benefit from the help that he or she might get from others during this time. And according to the principle of reciprocal altruism, other group members will be willing to give that help to the needy individual because they expect that similar help will be given to them should they need it. However, in order for reciprocal altruism to work, people have to keep track of how benefits are exchanged, to be sure that everyone plays by the rules. If one person starts to take benefits without paying them back, this violates the principle of reciprocity and should not be allowed to continue for very long. In fact, research has shown that people seem to be particularly good at detecting “cheaters”—those who do not live up to their obligations in reciprocal altruism—and that these individuals are judged extremely negatively (Mealey, Daood, & Krage, 1996; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992).

Key Takeaways

  • We use affect, behavior, and cognition to help us successfully interact with others.
  • Social cognition refers to our thoughts about and interpretations of ourselves and other people. Over time, we develop schemas and attitudes to help us better understand and more successfully interact with others.
  • Affect refers to the feelings that we experience as part of life and includes both moods and emotions.
  • Social behavior is influenced by principles of reciprocal altruism and social exchange.
  • Consider a time when you had an important social interaction or made an important decision. Analyze your responses to the situation in terms of affect, behaviour, and cognition.
  • Think about when you last engaged in a case of reciprocal altruism and describe what took place.

Exercise and Critical Thinking

  1. Consider a time when you had an important social interaction or made an important decision. Analyze your responses to the situation in terms of affect, behaviour, and cognition.
  2. Think about when you last engaged in a case of reciprocal altruism and describe what took place.


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Isen, A. M. (2003). Positive affect as a source of human strength. In A psychology of human strengths: Fundamental questions and future directions for a positive psychology (pp. 179–195). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kameda, T., Takezawa, M., & Hastie, R. (2003). The logic of social sharing: An evolutionary game analysis of adaptive norm development. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 7(1), 2–19..

Kameda, T., Takezawa, M., Tindale, R. S., & Smith, C. M. (2002). Social sharing and risk reduction: Exploring a computational algorithm for the psychology of windfall gains. Evolution & Human Behavior, 23(1), 11–33.

Mealey, L., Daood, C., & Krage, M. (1996). Enhanced memory for faces of cheaters. Ethology & Sociobiology, 7(2), 119–128.

Moreland, R. L., & Levine, J. M. (Eds.). (2006). Socialization in organizations and work groups. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow & L. Cosmides (Eds.),Theadapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (p. 666). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.