ArticlePDF Available

Beyond Altruism: Sociological Foundations of Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior



In explaining the sources of cooperation and prosocial behavior, psychologists, behavioral economists, and biologists often focus on factors internal to the individual, such as altruistic motivations, other-regarding preferences, and prosocial emotions. By contrast, sociologists typically emphasize social forces external to the individual, including norms, reputation systems, and social networks. Here we review evidence for these rules, reputations, and relations, showing that they have powerful and pervasive effects on cooperation and prosocial behavior.Our discussion highlights two emergent themes of the reviewed literature. First, although these classes of sociological mechanisms typically promote cooperation, their presence can also create ambiguity for individuals regarding the reasons for their own and others' prosocial acts, and that ambiguity can undermine future prosociality in subsequent settings where the mechanisms are absent. Second, altruistic preferences and social mechanisms often interact, such that the causal significance of altruism is attenuated where these mechanisms are present.
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Beyond Altruism: Sociological
Foundations of Cooperation
and Prosocial Behavior
Brent Simpson1and Robb Willer2
1Department of Sociology, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina 29208;
2Department of Sociology, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305;
Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2015. 41:10.1–10.21
The Annual Review of Sociology is online at
This article’s doi:
Copyright c
2015 by Annual Reviews.
All rights reserved
norms, status, reputation, networks, social dilemmas, collective action
In explaining the sources of cooperation and prosocial behavior, psycholo-
gists, behavioral economists, and biologists often focus on factors internal to
the individual, such as altruistic motivations, other-regarding preferences,
and prosocial emotions. By contrast, sociologists typically emphasize social
forces external to the individual, including norms, reputation systems, and
social networks. Here we review evidence for these rules, reputations, and
relations, showing that they have powerful and pervasive effects on coopera-
tion and prosocial behavior. Our discussion highlights two emergent themes
of the reviewed literature. First, although these classes of sociological mecha-
nisms typically promote cooperation, their presence can also create ambigu-
ity for individuals regarding the reasons for their own and others’ prosocial
acts, and that ambiguity can undermine future prosociality in subsequent set-
tings where the mechanisms are absent. Second, altruistic preferences and
social mechanisms often interact, such that the causal significance of altruism
is attenuated where these mechanisms are present.
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Social dilemma:
a situation in which
behaviors lead to
collectively suboptimal
synonymous with
collective action
an individual behavior
that benefits a group
or collective
Trust: an individual’s
expectation that an
alter will act in a
benign or cooperative
way when the alter has
an incentive to act
Prosocial behavior:
an individual behavior
that benefits one or
more others
Why do people cooperate in situations in which they could benefit more through selfishness?
Why do people behave generously, often making great personal sacrifices in order to help
others? Why do people behave in trustworthy ways, when they could profit more by exploiting
dependent partners? In situations such as these an opposition exists between what is best for one-
self versus what is best for others. Because of the fundamental nature of that conflict—reflecting
the often divergent consequences of egoism and sociality—answers to these questions offer
important insights into understanding the microfoundations of social order.
Conflicts between individual self-interest and collective rationality are not only fundamental,
but also ubiquitous, as these tensions appear frequently in the course of everyday social life. Ex-
amples of such social dilemmas range from mundane to world-changing; individuals face these
conflicting interests as they develop committed romantic relationships, form productive work-
place collaborations, and broker economic exchanges. At the macro level social dilemmas also
must be overcome as nations negotiate trade agreements, citizens mobilize political movements,
and nations confront global challenges such as climate change. In all these cases, cooperation is
plagued by a fundamental and recurring conflict, with the prospect of group harmony and pro-
ductivity pushing parties together, but greed and distrust pulling them apart. Groups can flourish
if their constituent members move beyond narrow self-interest, achieve mutual trust, and invest
in collective endeavors. But groups can also founder where individuals fail to overcome these
Although rooted in philosophy, all the social sciences have confronted the Hobbesian problem
of order, with each offering characteristic solutions. Where political scientists have traditionally
emphasized the role of government and formal institutions, economists have focused on the
functions of markets and competition, and psychologists have studied altruistic motivations
and emotions such as empathy and gratitude. By contrast, sociologists have emphasized in-
formal, interpersonal mechanisms such as relationships, norms, hierarchies, shared values, and
A large and prominent literature on social dilemmas, emphasizing the impact of individual-level
factors on cooperation and prosocial behavior, has recently emerged in psychology (e.g., Batson
2011), behavioral economics (Gintis et al. 2003), and evolutionary biology (Sober & Wilson 1999).
For instance, developmental psychologists (e.g., Eisenberg et al. 2002) have linked variation in
prosocial behavior to personality and prosocial emotions, such as empathy and sympathy. Arguably,
the most active and long-standing research program on individual-level predictors of cooperation
and prosocial behavior has dealt with social value orientations, stable preferences for how valued
outcomes are divided between oneself and others (Balliet et al. 2009, van Lange et al. 2014). In this
literature, prosocials place greater weight on others’ welfare than do proselfs and thus are more
likely to act prosocially in a range of domains. Related work, mainly from behavioral economics,
has distinguished strong reciprocators—those inclined to cooperate with others and punish those
who do not—from their more self-interested counterparts (Fehr and Gintis 2007; cf. Eriksson
et al. 2014).
Whereas these literatures typically locate the sources of cooperation and prosocial behavior
within individuals—in personality, emotions, motivations, and preferences—sociological work
views cooperation and prosocial behavior as heavily impacted by factors outside individuals.
Of particular note, sociologists have focused on (a) prevailing norms and their enforcement,
(b) the perceptions and rank of individuals in groups, and (c) the character and structure of
relations connecting individuals. These uniquely interpersonal mechanisms—rules, reputations,
and relations—are the focus of our review.
10.2 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Trustworthiness: an
individual’s motivation
to honor, rather than
exploit, another’s trust
How much cooperation would we observe on the basis of altruistic motivations and preferences
alone? How generously would people act if they were not socially embedded, but placed in anony-
mous, decontextualized settings devoid of relationships or norms, with only their trust and concern
for strangers to motivate their prosociality? Although behavior in such a social vacuum might seem
impossible to realize, in fact we have some insight into it in the form of laboratory experiments
on social dilemmas, in which people interact with anonymous strangers in settings where all
participants must choose between maximizing their own or the group’s welfare.
And what happens in this social vacuum? The strong tendency in these settings is for costly
contributions to collective endeavors to begin at moderately high levels but then quickly decline
over time as more generous individuals withdraw their contributions to avoid exploitation from
their more selfish counterparts (Ostrom 2000, Sell & Wilson 1991). Although often criticized as
artificial, experiments in which social context is deliberately minimized in fact tell us much about
society. At the most basic level, the results of these studies in decontextualized settings tell us
that something else is necessary, that high levels of cooperation cannot be sustained merely on
the basis of the preferences and generalized trust that people carry around within them. Rather,
the micro-level manifestations of social order—cooperation, trust, and prosocial behavior among
individuals—require also the operation of mechanisms embedded in social settings. They are more
than the direct products of individuals’ altruism.1
The review that follows presents evidence for three broad classes of social mechanisms—
rules, reputations, and relations—and how they can promote cooperation and prosocial behavior.
Mechanisms of this sort are critical for understanding the foundations of social order because
individual-level factors are likely insufficient for large-scale collective efforts, building and main-
taining trust and trustworthiness, controlling rates of antisocial behavior, and encouraging helping
and volunteering. We conclude by highlighting two themes that emerged from our review. First,
these mechanisms operate primarily by bringing the behaviors of more self-interested individuals
in line with group goals. Second, because it is often unclear whether these actions are produced by
underlying motivations or social mechanisms, these mechanisms introduce ambiguity regarding
the motivations of individuals who cooperate or behave prosocially. Thus, although social forces
are critical for fostering high levels of cooperation, their presence also creates significant uncer-
tainty about whether that cooperation results from internal motivations or external influence. In
this way, individuals implicitly trade much of their ability to accurately discern their own and
others’ character in return for more reliable, harmonious, and productive group living.
Perhaps no concept has been as closely linked with sociology as norms. Norms were central to
early sociological theories of social order and especially prominent in the work of Durkheim
[1982(1895)], who viewed norms and the sanctioning of counternormative behavior as central to
moral order and social solidarity. But the field has maintained a discontented relationship with
the concept of norms for decades, as exemplified by Wrong’s (1961) critique of the “oversocial-
ized” model of the actor that predominated mid-twentieth-century sociology. Although interest
in norms fell out of favor partly with the demise of structural functionalism, norms and their
1Many laboratory studies of cooperation take exactly this tack, introducing mechanisms thought to impact behavior in real-
world contexts into a highly controlled setting in order to rigorously assess their isolated effects. We review several studies of
this type below Beyond Altruism 10.3
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
enforcement are once again central to the explanation of cooperation and prosocial behavior in
sociology and beyond.
Broadly speaking, norms may be categorized as either descriptive or injunctive (Cialdini et al.
1990). Descriptive norms are simply regularities of behavior, what most people do in a given situ-
ation, whereas injunctive norms are behavioral expectations that are backed by (social or material)
sanctions. Research shows that descriptive norms can have large effects on prosocial behavior. For
example, a field experiment by Schultz et al. (2007) found that providing households with infor-
mation about typical levels of electricity usage for their neighborhood led households to assimilate
to the perceived norm in the weeks that followed. Other field experiments show that descriptive
norms can spill over to impact behavior in other, associated domains. Keizer et al. (2008) found
that when a descriptive norm violated a corresponding injunctive norm, such as when graffiti or the
sounds of illegal fireworks were prevalent in a public space, passersby were more likely to violate
other social rules, such as prohibitions against littering and theft. Thus, mere perception of what
is typical is sufficient to shape whether individuals engage in prosocial or antisocial behavior.
Norm Enforcement
Most recent work on how norms impact cooperation has focused on injunctive norms, especially
when and why people enforce them (Benard 2012, Horne 2009). Some of this research, traceable to
Hobbes, focuses on formal, or top-down, mechanisms of norm enforcement, whereby a centralized
authority or institution administers rewards or punishments to group members (Hechter 1988).
But the bulk of recent research has focused on bottom-up, informal sanctions among peers (Horne
2009). Although top-down and bottom-up enforcement mechanisms differ in fundamental ways
(see Kitts 2006), the administration of either generally poses its own social dilemma, or second-
order free rider problem (Oliver 1980): Rational egoists would prefer to let others shoulder the
costs of establishing and maintaining the sanctioning system or of informally monitoring and
sanctioning fellow group members. Thus, the enforcement of cooperative norms can itself pose a
collective action problem.
Early experiments by Yamagishi (e.g., 1986, 1988) found that people facing a collective action
readily contribute to the provision of a centralized system designed to sanction noncontributors.
Similarly, Ostrom et al. (1992) studied peer sanctioning in the context of common pool resources,
finding that people were willing to pay to punish fellow group members who free rode and that
these sanctions increased cooperative behaviors, especially when coupled with verbal commu-
nication between group members, a point we return to below. More recent work in behavioral
economics (Fehr & G¨
achter 2002) extends these earlier findings, showing that people are willing
to take on material costs to sanction others even when there is no possibility of future interaction.
The key message of this line of research is that people are willing to pay to reward those who con-
tribute and punish those who do not (for reviews, see Fehr & Gintis 2007, Shinada & Yamagishi
2008). Thus, groups can readily overcome the second-order free rider problem that characterizes
norm enforcement.
At first blush, this empirical research on norms and enforcement might appear in line with
classic sociological claims that the presence of norms necessarily goes hand in hand with high
levels of cooperation. Yet there are important limits to norms and sanctions for collective welfare.
First, norms might persist even when group members no longer privately support them, as shown
by research on pluralistic ignorance (Prentice & Miller 1993). The stability of such unpopular
norms can be sustained in part by false enforcement processes, in which group members not only
conform to a norm they perceive to have popular backing, but also enforce conformity to the
norm in an effort to signal the sincerity of their compliance (Centola et al. 2005, Willer et al.
10.4 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
2009). Further, norms may emerge that support self-interested rather than cooperative behaviors
(Homans 1974, Kitts 2006, Miller 1999). There is even evidence that group members will punish
or ostracize those who give above normative levels (Herrmann et al. 2008, Irwin & Horne 2013,
Parks & Stone 2010). Finally, peer sanctions may be difficult to coordinate and can therefore
result in either more or less sanctioning than is necessary to discourage further noncooperation,
or they can spark cycles of recrimination as punishment is met with retaliatory counterpunishment
(Nikiforakis 2008). As a result of these costs, material sanctions between peers can lead to relatively
low increases in overall welfare.
Emergence of Norms
Findings regarding the negative effects of sanctions pose an interesting puzzle. As Ostrom (2000,
p. 138) notes, “in all known self-organized resource governance regimes that have survived for
multiple generations, participants invest resources in monitoring and sanctioning the actions of
each other so as to reduce the probability of free riding.” But how can this be so if peer sanctioning
systems pose all the problems just described? Part of the answer to this puzzle can be discerned
from important differences in how researchers have typically studied norm enforcement versus
how norms emerge and become enforced in real-world groups.
First, in real-world collective action groups, norms and expectations generally emerge via
communication among group members (Ostrom 2000). Meta-analyses show that communication
greatly increases cooperation in collective action settings (Balliet 2010, Sally 1995). One reason
communication is so important is that it allows group members to create collective expectations
about who should do what (e.g., how much members should contribute) and the consequences
for not meeting, or exceeding, those expectations (including punishments or rewards and who
should administer them). As evidence, Ostrom et al. (1992) found that the ability to punish
fellow group members yielded only marginally better outcomes than a control condition, once
sanctioning costs were taken into account. But groups who could communicate fared substantially
better, both when peer punishment was possible and even, to a somewhat lesser extent, when it
was not. Communication permitted group members to coordinate expectations about how much
each should contribute and, in cases where sanctions were possible, how much those who did not
meet the group’s expectations would be sanctioned. Other work addresses the collective selection
of particular institutional rules in collective action groups (Eriksson & Strimling 2012, Sutter
et al. 2010). Consistent with evidence from field work by Ostrom and colleagues, these studies
find that institutions are more effective when they emerge endogenously via the choices of group
Centralized Sanctions and Leadership
In contrast to most recent experimental studies of norms and sanctions, real-world collective action
groups generally place restrictions on who can punish whom for violating norms (e.g., Ostrom
2000). For instance, the responsibility for monitoring and sanctioning others’ behaviors might be
alternated among group members (O’Gorman et al. 2009) or based implicitly on who has more
power or influence in the group (e.g., Przepiorka & Diekmann 2013). Perhaps most commonly,
the ability to sanction others’ behaviors is often vested in an explicitly designated leader (van Vugt
& De Cremer 1999).
A recent lab-in-the-field experiment addressed the effectiveness of elected or appointed leaders
endowed with the power to impose costly sanctions on group members (Grossman & Baldassarri
2012). Results showed that group monitors willingly sacrificed their own endowments to sanction Beyond Altruism 10.5
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Trusting behavior:
acting in a way that
leaves one open to
exploitation by
behavior: acting
in a cooperative way
toward another when
one has an incentive to
do otherwise
group members, even though the monitors’ welfare was not tied to cooperation levels in the
group. Consistent with theories of legitimacy ( Johnson et al. 2006) as well as field research on
collective action groups (Ostrom 2000), how monitors came to occupy the role affected their
effectiveness. Elected monitors were most effective at garnering contributions, as group members
responded more strongly to sanctions meted out by elected rather than appointed monitors. More
generally, placing sanctioning capacity in the hands of a single group member facilitated the success
of collective action while avoiding problems with peer sanctioning, such as the coordination of
punishment and retaliatory sanctioning.
How Institutions Can Undermine Trust and Prosocial Motivations
The above research shows that although norms and sanctions are not always functional, they
often play an important role in promoting cooperation and prosocial behavior in groups. More-
over, prior work finds that norms and institutions are generally more effective when they emerge
endogenously and in settings where enforcement responsibility is centralized. But rules and insti-
tutions can also undermine cooperation in groups, by weakening prosocial values or even altering
cultural conceptions of what is considered moral or prosocial. As Bowles (2008) argues, institutions
or “policies designed for self-interested citizens” might actually end up creating self-interested
citizens. This can happen via a number of different mechanisms. For instance, institutions that
invoke extrinsic incentives for prosocial behavior alter individuals’ perceptions about what mo-
tivates others, inadvertently signaling that self-interest is normal. Such consequences have been
demonstrated in response to the use of contracts. Although contracts reduce the risk inherent in
many types of exchanges, they can also lead parties to inaccurately attribute an exchange partner’s
benign behavior to the contract itself. Once the contract is removed, studies find that trust is lower
than it would have been had there never been a contract (Malhotra & Murnighan 2002).
The damaging effects of contracts are not limited to trust. Laboratory experiments have found
that, compared with participants who were never engaged by contracts, those who first took part in
contractually backed exchanges were more likely to exploit the trusting behaviors of new partners
in subsequent interactions not governed by contracts (Kuwabara 2015, Simpson & Eriksson 2009).
The researchers attribute this effect to a self-perception dynamic (Bem 1972), whereby a person
attributes one’s own trustworthy behavior to the presence of the contract, leading to less trust-
worthy behavior once the external constraint is removed. More generally, incentivizing prosocial
behavior via the use of rewards or punishments to condition certain behaviors can undermine
intrinsic motivation.
Other research considers the impact of more macro-level institutions and organizations on
prosocial behavior. Much of this work deals with whether and how markets undermine civic
virtues and other-regarding preferences, a long-standing question in sociology (Fourcade & Healy
2007). In his classic comparative study of blood donation in Britain and the United States, Titmuss
(1970) argued that monetary compensation for donations might paradoxically reduce the available
supply by undermining prospective donors’ intrinsic motivations to give blood. A field experiment
partially supports Titmuss’s hypothesis (Mellstr ¨
om & Johannesson 2008). Frey & Oberholzer-
Gee (1997) found similar effects in their study of Swiss villages that were being considered as
potential nuclear waste repository sites. When no compensation was offered, just over half of
villagers indicated a willingness to accept the site, despite widely perceived hazards. But when the
villagers considered the prospect of compensation for hosting the facility, consent dropped by
half. In this way, civic duty was undermined when it was framed as purchasable.
A provocative and unusual demonstration of how markets can erode moral conduct comes from
a recent experiment by Falk & Szech (2013). Relative to a control condition in which individuals
10.6 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
made independent decisions, participants who engaged in competitive market interactions were
more willing to allow a healthy mouse to be killed as a consequence of an exchange. The authors
conclude that the undermining of moral behavior may stem partly from the information markets
convey about social norms. Specifically, witnessing other market participants pursue their own
self-interest at a cost to others’ welfare communicates that egoism is normative.
Economic sociologists have also studied how market norms and institutions frame the morality
of a given behavior and can thereby alter cultural conceptions of what is moral or immoral
(Fourcade & Healy 2007). Zelizer’s (1983) classic study shows how the insurance industry
successfully transformed the perceived meaning of life insurance, once viewed by the public
as morally repulsive, into a moral responsibility to loved ones. Healy (2000) traced the large
variation in blood donation in EU countries to international differences in collection regimes.
Like Titmuss (1970), Healy concludes that the ways organizations frame the act of giving blood
impact donors’ motivations for giving. For instance, those who give to state collection regimes
might interpret their donation as quid pro quo for benefits received from the state health system,
whereas those who donate via the Red Cross may view their donation in more altruistic terms,
since donors are often recruited via religious and volunteer organizations. Along similar lines,
Almeling (2007) finds egg donor agencies are more likely than sperm banks to frame donation in
terms of altruism, despite the much greater monetary compensation given to egg donors. Further
insights into how market norms and broader institutions impact prosocial values and behaviors
are likely to be forthcoming as sociologists increasingly turn their attention to morality and how
it intersects with economic life (Fourcade & Healy 2007, Hitlin & Vaisey 2013).
In the last decade, perhaps no mechanism promoting cooperation and prosocial behavior has
received as much attention as reputation. Once viewed as secondary to material incentives, the
reputational rewards that go to those who behave in generous or cooperative ways are now also
viewed as a powerful force shaping prosocial action. Researchers generally conceive of reputation
as the “set of judgments a community makes about the personal qualities of one of its members”
(Emler 1990, p. 171). Here we are particularly concerned with reputational judgments with moral
content, specifically judgments of a person’s cooperativeness, trustworthiness, or generosity. Sta-
tus, on the other hand, is generally defined as a person’s relative standing in a hierarchy based on
prestige, honor, and respect (Thye 2000). Note that these concepts are overlapping but distinct.
For instance, whereas status researchers generally focus on prestige hierarchies in which individual
rank is relative (Sell 1997, Willer 2009), a person’s reputation as more or less prosocial need not be
relative and thus may not necessarily impact the reputations of fellow group or community mem-
bers (though see Barclay & Willer 2007). Here we review work on cooperation and reputation
before turning to recent work on status.
Prosocial Reputations and Reputation Systems
Research has documented a great array of benefits that accrue to those with prosocial reputations,
finding that such individuals are trusted more (Barclay 2004), are respected more (Hardy & van
Vugt 2006, Willer 2009), are cooperated with more (Barclay 2004, Willer 2009), have more
influence (Willer 2009), and are disproportionately selected as exchange partners (Barclay &
Willer 2007) and group leaders (Milinski et al. 2002). In online markets, such as eBay, those
who are known to be reliably cooperative can command higher prices for their items (Diekmann
et al. 2014). Consistent with the many benefits that accrue to those with a prosocial reputation, Beyond Altruism 10.7
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
research finds that prosocial behavior increases dramatically where reputational rewards are
possible (Barclay & Willer 2007). Indeed, recent work shows that children as young as five years
old engage in prosocial impression management, acting more generously when they can develop
a good reputation for doing so (Engelmann et al. 2013).
The impact of reputational considerations on prosocial behavior is also well established in the
ethnographic literature (Mauss 1922, Smith & Bird 2000) as well as in studies of social move-
ments ( Jasper 2011). Chong (1991), for instance, views reputational concerns as an often critical
impetus for participation in the high-risk Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement. Moreover,
contributions to other types of large-scale cooperative endeavors, such as online marketplaces and
open-source software communities, are driven in large part by contributors’ reputational moti-
vations (Anthony et al. 2009, Smith & Kollock 1999). Field experiments on energy conservation
(Yoeli et al. 2013) and longitudinal studies of blood donors (Lacetera & Macis 2010) have docu-
mented similar effects, finding that prosociality increases when behaviors are public. These studies
illustrate how much the prospect of reputational gain, and conversely the threat of loss, serves to
promote cooperative and prosocial behaviors.
Establishing Reputation Systems
Just as with sanction-backed norms, the ubiquity of reputation systems poses a theoretical puzzle.
Many reputation systems can be viewed as public goods, valuable sources of information generally
available to anyone, whether or not one has contributed to them (Smith & Kollock 1999). Thus, the
provision of reputational information is in essence the production of a public good, and therefore
the existence and maintenance of reputation systems should not be taken for granted. After all,
offering feedback about one’s experience with a trader in an online marketplace, or gossiping about
a group member’s bad behavior, often takes time or effort while also risking retaliation.
Despite this, a number of studies have found that individuals readily share reputational infor-
mation about those with whom they have interacted. For example, a study of eBay transactions
found high levels of contributions to its reputation system, with 60–80% of buyers leaving feed-
back about sellers (Diekmann et al. 2014). The authors concluded from their analyses of feedback
patterns that the ratings were motivated in part by other-regarding preferences. Other work is
consistent with this claim, showing that, when spreading reputational information could protect
others from exploitation, people readily share information about prior exchange partners via gos-
sip, even suffering costs to do so (Feinberg et al. 2014). This work further finds that such prosocial
gossip was engaged in most frequently by more altruistic individuals, for whom spreading gossip
reduced stress they felt upon learning of an individual’s prior antisocial behavior. Beyond these
altruistic motives, contributions to reputation systems can also be guided by enlightened self-
interest, as leaving a positive review of one person can lead to reciprocation by the subject of
the review (Resnick & Zeckhauser 2002). It also seems likely that those who participate in the
creation and maintenance of reputation systems may also receive reputational benefits, but we are
not aware of any work addressing this.
We thus know that people contribute to reputation systems, but another puzzle is why these
systems are so effective in communities with high mobility and very low chances of repeated
interactions, such as online markets. After all, these marketplaces do not generally prevent sellers
with unscrupulous reputations from wiping their slates clean by forging a new identity, and then
moving on to exploit more unsuspecting buyers. Under such circumstances, the absence of a
negative reputation is of little value in deciphering which traders to avoid. Positive reputations,
on the other hand, provide much more useful information about prospective partners’ trustwor-
thiness, since they are built on a history of cooperative interactions. Experimental simulations of
10.8 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
market exchanges by Yamagishi et al. (2009) confirm that when traders can reestablish identities,
positive (or mixed) reputation systems promote higher levels of honesty in transactions compared
with purely negative reputation systems. Thus, whereas negative reputation systems facilitate
trustworthiness via the threat of exclusion from communities with fixed identities and highly em-
bedded interactions, such as the wholesale diamond markets analyzed by Coleman (1988), positive
reputations are likely to be more beneficial in systems such as online markets where nonembedded
interactions are commonplace and interactants can strategically alter their identities.
Status Impacts Contributions to Collective Actions
Whereas the work reviewed above focuses on reputations, a separate line of research has tied
generosity (Flynn 2003) and the provision of public goods (Hardy & van Vugt 2006, Willer 2009)
more specifically to status processes. For instance, Willer (2009) showed that those who con-
tributed more to group efforts were subsequently accorded higher status by their group members.
This higher status, in turn, increased their later contributions to the group via enhanced progroup
motivation. These downstream effects of status on prosociality have also been demonstrated in
the context of contributions to large-scale collective actions, such as, the online
open-source encyclopedia. The quantity and quality of content on Wikipedia depend on voluntary
contributions, but its content can be accessed by anyone, regardless of whether they contribute.
A field experiment by Restivo & van de Rijt (2012) with Wikipedia users underscores the impact
of status rewards in sustaining contributions among the most active contributors. Users can give
volunteers barnstars, symbolic recognition for their prior contributions to the collective good.
Restivo & van de Rijt found that random assignment of barnstars to high contributors resulted in
increased subsequent contributions, consistent with Willer’s laboratory experiment.
Status hierarchies in groups may help promote collective actions not only by affecting how
much people give, but also by coordinating when they give. For instance, Simpson et al. (2012)
built on insights from status characteristics theory to explain how extant status differences in
groups influence collective action outcomes. They found that possessing higher relative status
led participants to be more likely to initiate collective action by making costly contributions to
group goals. Such early contributions by high-status actors tend to be relatively large (Sell 1997)
and influence lower-status actors to follow through with higher contributions than they would
have otherwise made (Eckel et al. 2010). Thus, via a sequencing and influence process, status
hierarchies can attenuate both the start-up and free rider problems (Heckathorn 1996) associated
with collective actions.
Limits and Liabilities of Status for Prosociality
Many of the findings reviewed above support a functionalist account of status in groups. Indeed, a
growing body of empirical work is consistent with the view that hierarchies facilitate group success
by motivating individuals to sacrifice for group goals and by coordinating members’ behaviors
(Magee & Galinsky 2008). But as Anderson & Willer (2014) note in a recent assessment of
the literature, hierarchies often form around group members’ culturally defined beliefs about
one another’s status characteristics, e.g., that whites are more generally competent than African
Americans or that men are more competent than women. To the extent that status is unrelated
to task performance or expertise, status-based hierarchies will likely not promote—and may even
stymy—group goals.
Moreover, when group hierarchies are zero-sum (Anderson et al. 2006, Blau 1964), individuals’
status concerns can lead to interpersonal conflicts and/or low hierarchical consensus that can Beyond Altruism 10.9
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
undermine the group-benefiting effects of status hierarchies (Anderson & Willer 2014). Similarly,
Kitts (2006) argues that when status rewards for group contributions are rival (and sufficiently
valuable), norms may emerge that prescribe sanctioning those who contribute to collective
efforts, consistent with research on antisocial punishment addressed above. Further clarification
of the circumstances under which status concerns encourage group-benefiting contributions
versus dysfunctional status conflicts and hierarchical dissensus is an important avenue for future
Social relations and network structure are key channels through which the mechanisms addressed
thus far are realized. For instance, people can generally have reputations only if they are connected
to others, directly or indirectly, through social networks (Emler 1990). Similarly, exposure to
norms and sanctions depends on the strength and patterning of relations connecting individuals
(Homans 1974, Horne 2009). However, relations and network structure are more than mere
conduits through which other social factors flow to impact prosocial behavior. These aspects of
social structure also have important effects of their own. Perhaps most obviously, social relations
are frequently characterized by emotional commitment, feelings of moral obligation, interest in
the partner’s welfare, and reduced uncertainty about the other’s likely behavior, all of which can
promote prosociality within a relation. Additionally, where relations are expected to endure in
the future, either for affective, structural, or other reasons, that expectation casts a shadow of the
future on present interaction, reducing incentives for malfeasance (Axelrod 1984). Thus, positive
social relations tend to attenuate problems of trust and trustworthiness that might otherwise stymy
social and economic exchanges (DiMaggio & Louch 1998, Kollock 1994).
But research has increasingly demonstrated how networks impact prosociality beyond the
qualities of dyadic relations. Recent work highlights how the structure of relations matters, with
individuals’ network location, the network distance between pairs of individuals, and diffusion
dynamics, as well as properties of the network as a whole (e.g., density, dynamism) having impor-
tant effects on prosociality. In the sections that follow, we move beyond individuals’ immediate
adjacencies, describing how cooperation and prosocial behavior are impacted by broader network
structures and individuals’ embeddedness within those structures.
Distal and Indirect Effects of Network Relations on Prosociality
Although the highest levels of prosociality tend to occur within enduring positive relations,
research also reveals important distal network effects in which prosociality is often extended to
those to whom one is only indirectly connected. For instance, although Jews who were saved from
the Nazi Holocaust were typically aided by people they knew, many rescuers were strangers. In
the majority of such cases, the two were connected indirectly by an intermediary (Varese & Yaish
2000). More generally, studies of naturally occurring networks find that generosity decreases as
the network distance between individuals increases, such that people are generous toward friends
of friends, somewhat less so toward friends of friends of friends, and least generous toward
more distal others or strangers (Apicella et al. 2012, Baldassarri & Grossman 2013, Leider et al.
Networks can also indirectly encourage prosociality through the spread of reputational infor-
mation about others’ trustworthiness through ties that connect group members (Buskens & Raub
2002) and by shaping levels of trust in strangers (Macy & Skvoretz 1998). As Dasgupta (1988,
10.10 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
pp. 64–65, cited in Glanville et al. 2013) notes, “in dealing with someone you learn something
not only about him, but also about others in his society. You learn something about population
statistics. Therefore, if you meet several honest persons and no dishonest ones you might want to
revise your prior opinion of society at large.” Several studies (Glanville et al. 2013, Welch et al.
2007) support the claim that the development of interpersonal trust in cooperative relationships
tends to generalize, promoting greater trust in strangers.
Other approaches to the diffusion of prosociality through networks are based in social exchange
accounts of generalized reciprocity, in which an actor who receives benefits from one party does
not directly reciprocate the benefactor but instead pays it forward by giving to a third party
(Bearman 1997, Ekeh 1974, Takahashi 2000, Uehara 1990, Yamagishi & Cook 1993).2Research
finds that generalized exchange systems featuring this form of reciprocity can foster high levels
of solidarity (Molm et al. 2007, but see also Lawler et al. 2008), provided they achieve sufficient
levels of productivity (Willer et al. 2012). Further, once achieved, group solidarity can propel
group members’ subsequent costly contributions to such systems (Willer et al. 2012).
That individuals tend to pay generosity forward, responding to acts of kindness by subsequently
behaving more generously with third parties, is supported by both field and laboratory experiments
conducted in a variety of cultural contexts (Tsvetkova & Macy 2014, Willer et al. 2014b). In
addition to unilateral giving behaviors, other work establishes how contributions to public goods
can cascade through networks, influencing the behaviors of people two and even three degrees
removed from the original contributor (Fowler & Christakis 2010).
Although these studies show that prosocial behavior diffuses through social network ties, our
knowledge of how the structure of relations in networks can amplify or attenuate these effects
remains limited. Linking micro-level understandings of factors that promote prosociality with
features of network structure is an important direction for future research.
Network Integration and Network Structure
Most studies that address how prosociality varies with structural location focus on actors’ centrality
in a network. Even controlling for social distance, researchers find that individuals who are more
central are more generous to fellow group members (Bra ˜
nas-Garza et al. 2010) and contribute
more to collective efforts (Baldassarri 2014). But why are network centrality and prosociality
positively related? It may be that more altruistic and cooperative types become more central in
the network, consistent with research reviewed above on the reputational benefits of prosociality.
Alternatively, high centrality may lead actors to behave more prosocially, perhaps because of their
greater visibility. The correlation between prior behavior and reputation tends to be strongest
for more popular or central group members (Anderson & Shirako 2008). Thus, the potential
reputational rewards and costs for acting prosocially (or failing to do) may be greater for more
central actors. Finally, being more centrally located in a group’s network is associated with higher
levels of commitment to the group (Paxton & Moody 2003), which can motivate sacrifice for the
group and its members. Thus, existing research largely leaves open whether network centrality is
a cause of prosociality, a consequence, or both, making the identification of causal direction and
underlying mechanisms an important goal for future work.
2Whereas generalized reciprocity occurs when an actor who receives benefits or helps a third party in turn ( you help her because
I helped you), indirect reciprocity occurs when an actor who gives benefits to another is subsequently helped by a third party
(she helps you because you helped me). Indirect reciprocity is driven by the reputation processes discussed above, in which those
who act prosocially develop prosocial reputations and, as a consequence, are helped by others when the need arises. Beyond Altruism 10.11
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Moving beyond an individual’s location in the network, other work has addressed how prop-
erties of the larger social network influence network-wide rates of cooperation (Rand & Nowak
2013). This research finds that dynamic networks in which ties can be added or deleted tend to
facilitate cooperation ( Jordan et al. 2013, Rand et al. 2011).3The ability to form new ties increases
the incentive to cooperate in order to attract new partners, consistent with work on reputations
discussed above. Similarly, the ability to shed ties to defectors promotes the formation of clusters
of cooperators.
A separate line of research addresses the impact of interpersonal ties and network structure
on contributions to collective actions. Formal models have addressed how the diffusion of con-
tributions to collective action depends on the distribution of potential contributors’ underlying
propensity to join the effort based on the number of others who have already joined (i.e., their
thresholds for adoption; Chwe 1999, Granovetter 1978), as well as the density of the network
(Gould 1993, Marwell et al. 1988; for a review, see Oliver 1993). Depending on specific model
parameters, researchers have found very different effects of network density. Macy (1991), for
instance, finds that density can be detrimental to collective action because nonparticipation can
more easily diffuse through the network. Kim & Bearman (1997), on the other hand, find that
greater density has a positive impact on collective action because it increases communication and
interpersonal influence between prospective contributors, and creates more favorable conditions
for shared interest in the collective good. Although there are some mixed findings (see Passy &
Monsch 2014), the empirical literature on social movements is largely consistent with the view
that denser networks facilitate collective action success (e.g., McAdam 1986, Pfaff 1996).4
Drawbacks of Network Embeddedness for Prosociality
We have so far focused primarily on the benefits of relations and networks for prosociality. But
one of the most active research programs on trust points to conditions under which dense social
networks can be detrimental to generalized trust. Most of this work derives from Yamagishi &
Yamagishi’s (1994) finding that collectivist (e.g., East Asian) cultures tend to be characterized by
lower levels of generalized trust than individualist (e.g., most Western) cultures. Research reviewed
above finds that the development of trust in personal relations can generalize to strangers. This
may be because people tend to attribute a partner’s cooperative behavior to benign intent (“He did
not take advantage of me. He is a trustworthy person”). As the number of such positive interactions
increases, a person may come to expect that others, in general, can be trusted. But Yamagishi &
Yamagishi (1994) suggest that the development of generalized trust in this way is inhibited when
such interactions are embedded within densely connected networks, because such networks are
characterized by high levels of informal monitoring and sanctioning. Similar to the effects of
formal contracts discussed above, monitoring and sanctioning in such networks provide assurance
that one’s cooperation is unlikely to be exploited. Because the sanctioning system is very salient
in such network settings, others’ cooperation is likely to be attributed to the system rather than to
goodwill or benign intent (“He did not take advantage of me, since the business partners we have
3Earlier work, although not framed in terms of network structure, also shows how the ability to enter or exit relations favors
more cooperative strategies (Orbell & Dawes 1993, Yamagishi & Hayashi 1996).
4Scholars have called for greater specification of when and why social networks matter for social movements (e.g., Kitts 2000).
As one example, it may be that network density facilitates recruitment into a social movement, as suggested by the Kim &
Bearman (1997) model, but also leaves the movement vulnerable to cascades of departures, as might be suggested by the Macy
(1991) model.
10.12 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
in common would have ostracized him had he done so”). Because benign behaviors are more apt
to be attributed to structural factors than to benign intentions, densely connected networks are
predicted to inhibit the development of generalized trust, compared with more sparsely connected
Empirical tests of this structural account are largely indirect, because variation in network
structure is generally assumed rather than measured. Nevertheless, a number of experiments (e.g.,
Yamagishi 1988) and surveys (Yamagishi & Yamagishi 1994) support the prediction that Japanese
are less trusting of strangers than Americans are. More generally, a comparison of 31 nations
found that collectivist cultures generally feature lower generalized trust (Gheorghiu et al. 2009).
But again, none of these studies directly measures rates of interaction within densely connected
networks. One effort to more directly test these claims found that higher rates of interaction with
family members were associated with lower trust toward strangers (Ermisch & Gambetta 2010).
But future research should attempt to establish clearer causal evidence, especially as it relates to
cross-cultural differences in generalized trust.
In contrast to other fields, sociological research on the forces shaping cooperation and prosocial
behavior has focused almost entirely on factors external to the individual. Our review has focused
on three classes of such social mechanisms—rules, reputation, and relations—found to encourage
progroup actions. Research on rules shows the importance of social norms, both descriptive and
injunctive, and sanctions for encouraging prosocial acts. Work in this area often finds that the
organic, bottom-up emergence of norms and enforcement practices yields more effective institu-
tions than those imposed from the top-down. Research also finds that the centralization of norm
enforcement is typically more efficient than distributed enforcement systems, especially in settings
where leaders emerge through processes viewed as legitimate. Among other benefits, centralized
leadership circumvents the diffusion of responsibility for sanctioning that can plague decentralized
sanctioning regimes. At the same time, research also shows that, precisely because sanctions en-
courage prosocial behavior, they can undermine both trust and intrinsic prosocial motivations by
creating ambiguity around the underlying motivations driving one’s own and others’ prosocial acts.
Studies of reputation highlight the many benefits, including gifts, prestige, influence, and ac-
cess to productive collaborative endeavors, that accrue to individuals who overcome narrow self-
interest to behave prosocially. Consistent with this, prosocial acts are more common in situations
that facilitate reputational benefits, for example, public as opposed to anonymous settings. Fur-
ther, receiving reputational rewards for contributing to collective endeavors encourages greater
giving in the future. However, work in this area does not find uniformly positive effects. For ex-
ample, whereas reputation-based hierarchies often benefit groups by coordinating group efforts,
hierarchies based on nonmeritorious factors such as ascriptive characteristics can undermine the
functional effects of hierarchies.
Last, work on relations finds that a variety of properties of networks, and the location of
individuals and relationships in them, shape prosocial behavior. Studies find that more generous
individuals tend to be more centrally located in social networks. Relationships too are shaped by
network properties, as dyadic giving diffuses across relationships via generalized reciprocity, and
helping behavior is more likely between actors that are closer to one another in the network.
Further, networks with high density and the dynamic capacity for actors to form and dissolve
relationships also tend to feature greater cooperation. But here also research shows that this class
of social mechanisms is not entirely functional for promoting cooperation. Specifically, research Beyond Altruism 10.13
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
suggests that dense networks featuring high levels of informal monitoring and sanctioning can
undermine generalized trust, limiting the formation of productive, cooperative efforts among
Interaction of Person and Situation
Here we have sought to balance the focus on mechanisms internal to the individual (e.g., pref-
erences, altruism) common in behavioral economics and psychology by emphasizing the social
factors external to individuals that are most often studied by sociologists. But an important ques-
tion remains: How do these two classes of mechanisms coexist? On the one hand, it could be that
both types of mechanisms operate in parallel, having simple main effects on prosociality and coop-
eration. On the other hand, another possibility is that they interact, with one somehow moderating
the effects of the other.
Whereas our review emphasizes the main effects of social factors, several recent studies support
the latter, interactional account. Specifically, research suggests that social mechanisms such as
those reviewed here have their strongest effects on more egoistic individuals who, in their absence,
would be less likely to behave prosocially. In lifting up the prosociality of more egoistic actors,
these mechanisms transform the very heterogeneous underlying motivations of individuals into
the more consistent, predictable, and benign behaviors we observe in public, social settings. For
instance, Simpson & Willer (2008) find that the behaviors of persons classified a priori as altruists
and egoists differ greatly in anonymous contexts, with altruists acting much more prosocially than
egoists. But these differences largely disappear in public settings where prosocial behavior could
lead to downstream monetary rewards, as egoists give much more generously in such settings than
they would in private. Likewise, egoists are more affected by the threat of gossip, cooperating
at higher rates when gossipers can pass on information about their behaviors to potential future
interaction partners (Feinberg et al. 2012).
Willer et al. (2014a) report parallel patterns when rewards for prosociality are purely rep-
utational with no downstream material consequences. They find that more egoistic individuals
are more likely than their more altruistic counterparts to pursue enhanced social status, and the
prospect of status gains lead them to act more prosocially. More altruistic people, on the other
hand, tend to give at high levels whether or not status gains are possible. Finally, a number of
studies show that, although more altruistic individuals act much more prosocially than egoists
in one-off interactions with strangers, these behavioral differences largely disappear when actors
are embedded in ongoing relations (e.g., Parks & Rumble 2001, Simpson et al. 2014, van Lange
et al. 2011). This is because the “shadow of the future” increases egoists’ cooperation, by aligning
cooperation with self-interest, but has less impact on altruists, who would be likely to cooperate
More generally, laboratory studies of socially decontextualized groups show that person-level
factors alone are generally unable to sustain cooperation at the high levels observed in many human
groups. As noted above, these groups initially show much variation in contributions, with more
altruistic individuals giving at high levels and more egoistic people contributing little or nothing at
all. Contributions of more altruistic individuals then decline over time in response to their egoistic
counterparts’ noncooperation (Fehr & Gintis 2007, Sell & Wilson 1991). Thus, in the absence
of social mechanisms—e.g., clear enforceable norms, opportunities to gain reputation or status
for contributions to group efforts, or social connections between group members—contributions
fall to very low levels. Considered alongside research just described on the interactive effects of
personal and situational factors, the failure of cooperation in socially decontextualized groups
suggests that although prosocial motivations help foster initial cooperation, they are generally
10.14 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
insufficient unless paired with social mechanisms. Further, these mechanisms seem to have most
of their effects via their impact on more egoistic actors.
Social Mechanisms and Attributional Ambiguity
Because social mechanisms lead self-interested individuals to behave prosocially in ways similar
to the behavior of intrinsically motivated people, they can also introduce ambiguity about what
motivates the prosocial behavior of others or even oneself. After all, unlike laboratory experiments,
where intrinsic motivations can be isolated from extrinsic factors, social life rarely affords group
members the opportunity to observe one another’s behavior both when a given social mechanism
is present and when it is not. As a consequence, people often must make attributions about what
motivated another’s behavior when that behavior could have resulted from intrinsic motivation
to benefit the group, extrinsic factors, or some combination thereof. Similarly, we are all to some
extent “strangers to ourselves” (Wilson 2009), lacking perfect insight into what motivates our
behaviors. Individuals thus may sometimes misattribute behaviors that in fact stemmed from al-
truistic motivations to the presence of an extrinsic reward instead (e.g., Simpson & Eriksson 2009).
Attributing others’ behaviors to the presence of extrinsic motivators can reduce trust that others
will cooperate in the absence of extrinsic motivators. Likewise, attributing one’s own cooperative
behaviors to extrinsic factors can undermine the likelihood that the individual will cooperate in
their absence.
For each social mechanism discussed above, we described evidence for how it might also un-
dermine cooperative outcomes, by eroding intrinsic motivations, raising suspicions of motivations
underlying others’ behaviors, or both. We noted, for instance, that the introduction of monetary
sanctions can lead those who would otherwise be inclined to cooperate to behave less prosocially
when the sanctions are removed (e.g., Bowles 2008). These sanctions can also reduce interpersonal
trust by introducing ambiguity about why others are contributing to group goals (Mulder et al.
2006). Likewise, the presence of reputational rewards for prosociality can create uncertainty about
whether others are giving out of altruistic motivation or the egoistic pursuit of reputational gain
(Anderson & Willer 2014, Gambetta & Przepiorka 2014, Willer et al. 2014a). Last, we described
theory and research showing that interactions within densely connected networks can undermine
generalized trust in others by introducing ambiguity about whether others’ generosity stems from
benign intentions or the presence of the monitoring and sanctioning systems that exist in such
networks (Yamagishi & Yamagishi 1994).
In this way, social mechanisms in a sense foster dependency, as they make themselves more
necessary by eroding the force of the person-level factors they complement. For social systems
facing the downsides of these social mechanisms the answer is clear: Commit further to the ad-
ministration of these social mechanisms, as the practicality of relying on individuals’ spontaneous
prosocial nature is diminished. An important question for future work is what kinds of social
mechanisms might promote cooperation among more self-interested individuals but without un-
dermining prosocial motivation or trust. Recent work suggests that some systems that bestow
social rewards on prosocial actions are less likely to undermine intrinsic motivations and trust. For
instance, although zero-sum status systems can reduce trust in the sincerity of others’ prosocial
actions (Anderson & Willer 2014), less competitive status and reputation systems appear less apt
than monetary sanctions to undermine intrinsic motivation, as suggested by research showing that
receiving respect for past generous acts enhances progroup motivation and costly contributions
to the group (Restivo & van de Rijt 2012, Willer 2009). More directly, Kuwabara (2015) had
participants complete exchanges in the presence of either contracts or reputation systems similar
to those used in online marketplaces. In contrast to the downstream effects of contracts, those in Beyond Altruism 10.15
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
the reputation condition did not subsequently act in less trusting and less trustworthy ways when
they interacted outside the purview of the reputation system. Mechanisms of this sort may succeed
in promoting cooperation, obviating the paradoxical effects of social mechanisms that promote
cooperation while introducing deleterious uncertainty about one’s own and others’ motivations.
The question of how groups reconcile tensions between what is best for individuals and what is best
for the collective has long been central to sociology and other social sciences. That social dilemmas
have received such widespread attention is not surprising, given the broad range of situations in
which they are encountered and the detrimental consequences that can result when collective
efforts founder, such as when common-pool resources are overharvested, arms proliferate between
rival nations, or the Earth’s climate changes irreversibly due to human activity. As Kollock (1998,
p. 183) noted in an earlier review, “many of the most challenging problems we face, from the
interpersonal to the international, are at their core social dilemmas.”
Research outside sociology has recently explained solutions to social dilemmas through fac-
tors residing primarily within individuals. This line of work has established powerful evidence
for the force of preferences, motivations, and emotions. Insights from this work, in particular
the finding that underlying concern for others’ welfare varies greatly across individuals, offer a
welcome corrective to the oversocialized model of human nature from early- to mid-twentieth-
century sociology, a model famously criticized by Wrong (1961, p. 183) for positing a ubiquitous
internalization of prosocial values and denying “the reality of the Hobbesian question.” These
insights likewise move us beyond the undersocialized (Granovetter 1985) rational egoist models
that have long dominated economics and political science but which fail to account for the levels
of cooperation documented in both laboratory and natural settings (e.g., Ostrom 1998, Ud´
1993). Despite the importance of this line of work, an emphasis on explanations of social order
arising from within people risks neglecting the critical sources of social order that come from
outside individuals, social mechanisms residing in the structures and institutions in which actors
are embedded.
Our review points to the critical role social mechanisms such as rules, reputations, and relations
play in creating and maintaining high levels of cooperation in groups. However, we also high-
light an important duality inherent to these factors. Precisely because they direct less altruistic
individuals to behave the way more altruistic people do, these mechanisms benefit groups while
obscuring our view of one another’s true motivations. This obfuscation can make us dependent
on the mechanisms, as intrinsic motivation and trust are often eroded, even as cooperation rises.
In this way, social mechanisms offer to us a sort of social contract, as they take away from us a
discerning view of our own and others’ character but deliver in return the benefits of efficient,
harmonious, and productive group living.
The authors are not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that
might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.
Work on this article was supported by grants SES 0647169 and SES 1058236 from the Na-
tional Science Foundation. We thank Delia Baldassarri, Steve Benard, Kimmo Eriksson, Christine
10.16 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Horne, Ko Kuwabara, Hanne van der Iest, David Willer, and Toshio Yamagishi for very helpful
comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this article.
Almeling R. 2007. Selling genes, selling gender: egg agencies, sperm banks, and the medical market in genetic
material. Am. Sociol. Rev. 72:319–40
Anderson C, Shirako A. 2008. Are individuals’ reputations related to their history of behavior? J. Personal. Soc.
Psychol. 94:320–33
Anderson C, Srivastava S, Beer JS, Spataro SE, Chatman JA. 2006. Knowing your place: self-perceptions of
status in face-to-face groups. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 91:1091–110
Anderson C, Willer R. 2014. Do status hierarchies benefit groups? A bounded functionalist account. In The
Psychology of Social Status, ed. JT Cheng, JL Tracy, C Anderson, pp. 44–70. New York: Springer
Anthony D, Smith SW, Williamson T. 2009. Reputation and reliability in collective goods: the case of the
online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Ration. Soc. 21:283–306
Apicella CL, Marlowe FW, Fowler JH, Christakis NA. 2012. Social networks and cooperation in hunter-
gatherers. Nature 481:497–501
Axelrod RM. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books
Baldassarri D. 2014. Cooperative networks: altruism, group solidarity, reciprocity, and sanctioning. Work. Pap., Dep.
Sociol., New York Univ.
Baldassarri D, Grossman G. 2013. The effect of group attachment and social position on prosocial behavior:
evidence from lab-in-the-field experiments. PLOS ONE 8:e58750
Balliet D. 2010. Communication and cooperation in social dilemmas: a meta-analytic review. J. Confl. Resolut.
Balliet D, Parks CD, Joireman J. 2009. Social value orientation and cooperation in social dilemmas: a meta-
analysis. Group Process. Intergroup Relat. 12:533–47
Barclay P. 2004. Trustworthiness and competitive altruism can also solve the “tragedy of the commons”. Evol.
Hum. Behav. 25:209–20
Barclay P, Willer R. 2007. Partner choice creates competitive altruism in humans. Proc. R. Soc. B 274:749–53
Batson CD. 2011. Altruism in Humans. New York: Oxford Univ. Press
Bearman P. 1997. Generalized exchange. Am. J. Sociol. 102:1383–415
Bem DJ. 1972. Self-perception theory. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 6:1–62
Benard S. 2012. Cohesion from conflict: Does intergroup conflict motivate intragroup norm enforcement and
support for centralized leadership? Soc. Psychol. Q. 75:107–30
Blau PM. 1964. Exchange and Power in Social Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction
Bowles S. 2008. Policies designed for self-interested citizens may undermine the moral sentiments: evidence
from economic experiments. Science 320:1605–9
Bra ˜
nas-Garza P, Cobo-Reyes R, Espinosa MP, Jim´
enez N, Kov´
ık J, Ponti G. 2010. Altruism and social
integration. Games Econ. Behav. 69:249–57
Buskens V, Raub W. 2002. Embedded trust: control and learning. Adv. Group Process. 19:167–202
Centola D, Willer R, Macy M. 2005. The emperor’s dilemma: a computational model of self-enforcing norms.
Am. J. Sociol. 110:1009–40
Chong D. 1991. Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press
Chwe MS-Y. 1999. Structure and strategy in collective action. Am. J. Sociol. 105:128–56
Cialdini RB, Reno RR, Kallgren CA. 1990. A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of
norms to reduce littering in public places. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 58:1015–26
Coleman JS. 1988. Social capital in the creation of human capital. Am. J. Sociol. 94:S95–S120
Dasgupta P. 1988. Trust as a commodity. In Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, ed. D Gambetta,
pp. 49–72. Oxford: Blackwell
Diekmann A, Jann B, Przepiorka W, Wehrli S. 2014. Reputation formation and the evolution of cooperation
in anonymous online markets. Am. Sociol. Rev. 79:65–85
DiMaggio P, Louch H. 1998. Socially embedded consumer transactions: For what kinds of purchases do
people most often use networks? Am. Sociol. Rev. 63:619–37 Beyond Altruism 10.17
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Durkheim E. 1982 (1895). Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: Free Press
Eckel CC, Fatas E, Wilson R. 2010. Cooperation and status in organizations. J. Public Econ. Theory 12:737–62
Eisenberg N, Guthrie IK, Cumberland A, Murphy BC, Shepard SA, et al. 2002. Prosocial development in
early adulthood: a longitudinal study. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 82:993–1006
Ekeh PP. 1974. Social Exchange Theory: The Two Traditions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press
Emler N. 1990. A social psychology of reputation. Eur. Rev. Soc. Psychol. 1:171–93
Engelmann JM, Over H, Herrmann E, Tomasello M. 2013. Young children care more about their reputation
with ingroup members and potential reciprocators. Dev. Sci. 16:952–58
Eriksson K, Cownden D, Ehn M, Strimling P. 2014. ‘Altruistic’ and ‘antisocial’ punishers are one and the
same. Rev. Behav. Econ. 1:209–21
Eriksson K, Strimling P. 2012. The hard problem of cooperation. PLOS ONE 7:e40325
Ermisch J, Gambetta D. 2010. Do strong family ties inhibit trust? J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 75:365–76
Falk A, Szech N. 2013. Morals and markets. Science 340:707–11
Fehr E, G¨
achter S. 2002. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415:137–40
Fehr E, Gintis H. 2007. Human motivation and social cooperation: experimental and analytical foundations.
Annu. Rev. Sociol. 33:43–64
Feinberg M, Willer R, Schultz M. 2014. Gossip and ostracism promote cooperation in groups. Psychol. Sci.
Feinberg M, Willer R, Stellar J, Keltner D. 2012. The virtues of gossip: reputational information sharing as
prosocial behavior. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 102:1015–30
Flynn FJ. 2003. How much should I give and how often? The effects of generosity and frequency of favor
exchange on social status and productivity. Acad. Manag. J. 46:539–53
Fourcade M, Healy K. 2007. Moral views of market society. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 33:285–311
Fowler JH, Christakis NA. 2010. Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks. PNAS 107:5334–38
Frey BS, Oberholzer-Gee F. 1997. The cost of price incentives: an empirical analysis of motivation crowding-
out. Am. Econ. Rev. 87:746–55
Gambetta D, Przepiorka W. 2014. Natural and strategic generosity as signals of trustworthiness. PLOS ONE
Gheorghiu MA, Vignoles VL, Smith PB. 2009. Beyond the United States and Japan: testing Yamagishi’s
emancipation theory of trust across 31 nations. Soc. Psychol. Q. 72:365–83
Gintis H, Bowles S, Boyd R, Fehr E. 2003. Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evol. Hum. Behav.
Glanville JL, Andersson MA, Paxton P. 2013. Do social connections create trust? An examination using new
longitudinal data. Soc. Forces 92:545–62
Gould RV. 1993. Collective action and network structure. Am. Sociol. Rev. 58:182–96
Granovetter M. 1978. Threshold models of collective behavior. Am. J. Sociol. 83:1420–43
Granovetter M. 1985. Economic action and social structure: the problem of embeddedness. Am. J. Sociol.
Grossman G, Baldassarri D. 2012. The impact of elections on cooperation: evidence from a lab-in-the-field
experiment in Uganda. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 56:964–85
Hardy CL, Van Vugt M. 2006. Nice guys finish first: the competitive altruism hypothesis. Personal. Soc. Psychol.
Bull. 32:1402–13
Healy K. 2000. Embedded altruism: blood collection regimes and the European Union’s donor population.
Am. J. Sociol. 105:1633–57
Hechter M. 1988. Principles of Group Solidarity. Berkeley: Univ. Calif. Press
Heckathorn DD. 1996. The dynamics and dilemmas of collective action. Am. Sociol. Rev. 61:250–77
Herrmann B, Th ¨
oni C, G¨
achter S. 2008. Antisocial punishment across societies. Science 319:1362–67
Hitlin S, Vaisey S. 2013. The new sociology of morality. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 39:51–68
Homans GC. 1974. Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. Oxford, UK: Harcourt Brace
Horne C. 2009. The Rewards of Punishment: A Relational Theory of Norm Enforcement. Stanford, CA: Stanford
Univ. Press
Irwin K, Horne C. 2013. A normative explanation of antisocial punishment. Soc. Sci. Res. 42:562–70
10.18 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Jasper JM. 2011. Emotions and social movements: twenty years of theory and research. Annu. Rev. Sociol.
Johnson C, Dowd TJ, Ridgeway CL. 2006. Legitimacy as a social process. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 32:53–78
Jordan JJ, Rand DG, Arbesman S, Fowler JH, Christakis NA. 2013. Contagion of cooperation in static and
fluid social networks. PLOS ONE 8:e66199
Keizer K, Lindenberg S, Steg L. 2008. The spreading of disorder. Science 322:1681–85
Kim H, Bearman PS. 1997. The structure and dynamics of movement participation. Am. Sociol. Rev. 62:70–93
Kitts JA. 2000. Mobilizing in black boxes: social networks and participation in social movement organizations.
Mobil. Int. Q. 5:241–57
Kitts JA. 2006. Collective action, rival incentives, and the emergence of antisocial norms. Am. Sociol. Rev.
Kollock P. 1994. The emergence of exchange structures: an experimental study of uncertainty, commitment,
and trust. Am. J. Sociol. 100:313–45
Kollock P. 1998. Social dilemmas: the anatomy of cooperation. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 24:183–214
Kuwabara K. 2015. Do reputation systems undermine trust? Divergent effects of reputational, contractual, and
relational enforcement on generalized trust and trustworthiness. Work. Pap., Columbia Univ.
Lacetera N, Macis M. 2010. Social image concerns and prosocial behavior: field evidence from a nonlinear
incentive scheme. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 76:225–37
Lawler EJ, Thye SR, Yoon J. 2008. Social exchange and micro social order. Am. Sociol. Rev. 73:519–42
Leider S, M ¨
obius MM, Rosenblat T, Do Q-A. 2009. Directed altruism and enforced reciprocity in social
networks. Q. J. Econ. 124:1815–51
Macy MW. 1991. Chains of cooperation: threshold effects in collective action. Am. Sociol. Rev. 56:730–47
Macy MW, Skvoretz J. 1998. The evolution of trust and cooperation between strangers: a computational
model. Am. Sociol. Rev. 63:638–60
Magee JC, Galinsky AD. 2008. Social hierarchy: the self-reinforcing nature of power and status. Acad. Manag.
Ann. 2:351–98
Malhotra D, Murnighan JK. 2002. The effects of contracts on interpersonal trust. Adm. Sci. Q. 47:534–59
Marwell G, Oliver PE, Prahl R. 1988. Social networks and collective action: a theory of the critical mass. III.
Am. J. Sociol. 94:502–34
Mauss M. 1922. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: Norton
McAdam D. 1986. Recruitment to high-risk activism: the case of Freedom Summer. Am. J. Sociol. 92:64–90
Mellstr ¨
om C, Johannesson M. 2008. Crowding out in blood donation: Was Titmuss right? J. Eur. Econ. Assoc.
Milinski M, Semmann D, Krambeck H-J. 2002. Reputation helps solve the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Nature
Miller DT. 1999. The norm of self-interest. Am. Psychol. 54:105–60
Molm LD, Collett JL, Schaefer DR. 2007. Building solidarity through generalized exchange: a theory of
reciprocity. Am. J. Sociol. 113:205–42
Mulder LB, Van Dijk E, De Cremer D, Wilke HAM. 2006. Undermining trust and cooperation: the paradox
of sanctioning systems in social dilemmas. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 42:147–62
Nikiforakis N. 2008. Punishment and counter-punishment in public good games: Can we really govern our-
selves? J. Public Econ. 92:91–112
O’Gorman R, Henrich J, Van Vugt M. 2009. Constraining free riding in public goods games: Designated
solitary punishers can sustain human cooperation. Proc. R. Soc. B 276:323–29
Oliver P. 1980. Rewards and punishments as selective incentives for collective action: theoretical investigations.
Am. J. Sociol. 85:1356–75
Oliver PE. 1993. Formal models of collective action. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 19:271–300
Orbell JM, Dawes RM. 1993. Social welfare, cooperators’ advantage, and the option of not playing the game.
Am. Sociol. Rev. 58:787–800
Ostrom E. 1998. A behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action: Presidential address,
American Political Science Association, 1997. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 92:1–22
Ostrom E. 2000. Collective action and the evolution of social norms. J. Econ. Perspect. 14:137–58 Beyond Altruism 10.19
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Ostrom E, Walker J, Gardner R. 1992. Covenants with and without a sword: Self-governance is possible. Am.
Polit. Sci. Rev. 86:404–17
Parks CD, Rumble AC. 2001. Elements of reciprocity and social value orientation. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull.
Parks CD, Stone AB. 2010. The desire to expel unselfish members from the group. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol.
Passy F, Monsch G-A. 2014. Do social networks really matter in contentious politics? Soc. Mov. Stud. 13:22–47
Paxton P, Moody J. 2003. Structure and sentiment: explaining emotional attachment to group. Soc. Psychol. Q.
Pfaff S. 1996. Collective identity and informal groups in revolutionary mobilization: East Germany in 1989.
Soc. Forces 75:91–117
Prentice DA, Miller DT. 1993. Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: some consequences of
misperceiving the social norm. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 64:243–56
Przepiorka W, Diekmann A. 2013. Individual heterogeneity and costly punishment: a volunteer’s dilemma.
Proc. R. Soc. B 280:20130247
Rand DG, Arbesman S, Christakis NA. 2011. Dynamic social networks promote cooperation in experiments
with humans. PNAS 108:19193–98
Rand DG, Nowak MA. 2013. Human cooperation. Trends Cognit. Sci. 17:413–25
Resnick P, Zeckhauser R. 2002. Trust among strangers in Internet transactions: empirical analysis of eBay’s
reputation system. Adv. Appl. Microecon. 11:127–57
Restivo M, Van De Rijt A. 2012. Experimental study of informal rewards in peer production. PLOS ONE
Sally D. 1995. Conversation and cooperation in social dilemmas: a meta-analysis of experiments from 1958 to
1992. Ration. Soc. 7:58–92
Schultz PW, Nolan JM, Cialdini RB, Goldstein NJ, Griskevicius V. 2007. The constructive, destructive, and
reconstructive power of social norms. Psychol. Sci. 18:429–34
Sell J. 1997. Gender, strategies, and contributions to public goods. Soc. Psychol. Q. 60:252–65
Sell J, Wilson RK. 1991. Levels of information and contributions to public goods. Soc. Forces 70:107–24
Shinada M, Yamagishi T. 2008. Bringing back Leviathan into social dilemmas. In New Issues and Paradigms in
Research on Social Dilemmas, ed. A Biel, D Eek, T G¨
arling, M Gustafson, pp. 93–123. New York: Springer
Simpson B, Brashears M, Gladstone E, Harrell A. 2014. Birds of different feathers cooperate together: no
evidence for altruism homophily in networks. Sociol. Sci. 1:542–64
Simpson B, Eriksson K. 2009. The dynamics of contracts and generalized trustworthiness. Ration. Soc. 21:59–80
Simpson B, Willer R. 2008. Altruism and indirect reciprocity: the interaction of person and situation in
prosocial behavior. Soc. Psychol. Q. 71:37–52
Simpson B, Willer R, Ridgeway CL. 2012. Status hierarchies and the organization of collective action. Sociol.
Theory 30:149–66
Smith EA, Bird RLB. 2000. Turtle hunting and tombstone opening: public generosity as costly signaling.
Evol. Hum. Behav. 21:245–61
Smith MA, Kollock P, eds. 1999. Communities in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge
Sober E, Wilson DS. 1999. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard Univ. Press
Sutter M, Haigner S, Kocher MG. 2010. Choosing the carrot or the stick? Endogenous institutional choice
in social dilemma situations. Rev. Econ. Stud. 77:1540–66
Takahashi N. 2000. The emergence of generalized exchange. Am. J. Sociol. 105:1105–34
Thye SR. 2000. A status value theory of power in exchange relations. Am. Sociol. Rev. 65:407–32
Titmuss RM. 1970. The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. New York: New Press
Tsvetkova M, Macy MW. 2014. The social contagion of generosity. PLOS ONE 9:e87275
ehn L. 1993. Twenty-five years with the logic of collective action. Acta Sociol. 36:239–61
Uehara E. 1990. Dual exchange theory, social networks, and informal social support. Am.J.Sociol.96:521–57
Van Lange PAM, Balliet DP, Parks CD, van Vugt M. 2014. Social Dilemmas: The Psychology of Human Cooper-
ation. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press
10.20 Simpson ·Willer
SO41CH10-Simpson-Willer ARI 20 April 2015 13:23
Van Lange PAM, Klapwijk A, Van Munster LM. 2011. How the shadow of the future might promote coop-
eration. Group Process. Intergroup Relat. 14:857–70
Van Vugt M, De Cremer D. 1999. Leadership in social dilemmas: the effects of group identification on
collective actions to provide public goods. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 76:587–99
Varese F, Yaish M. 2000. The importance of being asked: the rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe. Ration. Soc.
Welch MR, Sikkink D, Loveland MT. 2007. The radius of trust: religion, social embeddedness and trust in
strangers. Soc. Forces 86:23–46
Willer R. 2009. Groups reward individual sacrifice: the status solution to the collective action problem. Am.
Sociol. Rev. 74:23–43
Willer R, Feinberg MW, Flynn FJ, Simpson B. 2014a. The duality of generosity: Altruism and status seeking
motivate prosocial behavior. Work. Pap., Dep. Sociol., Stanford Univ.
Willer R, Flynn FJ, Feinberg MW, Mensching O, de Mello Ferreira VR, et al. 2014b. Do people pay it forward?
Gratitude fosters generalized reciprocity. Work. Pap., Dep. Sociol., Stanford Univ.
Willer R, Flynn FJ, Zak S. 2012. Structure, identity, and solidarity: a comparative field study of generalized
and direct exchange. Adm. Sci. Q. 57:119–55
Willer R, Kuwabara K, Macy MW. 2009. The false enforcement of unpopular norms. Am.J.Sociol.115:451–90
Wilson TD. 2009. Strangers to Ourselves:Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ.
Wrong DH. 1961. The oversocialized conception of man in modern sociology. Am. Sociol. Rev. 26:183–93
Yamagishi T. 1986. The provision of a sanctioning system as a public good. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 51:110–16
Yamagishi T. 1988. The provision of a sanctioning system in the United States and Japan. Soc. Psychol. Q.
Yamagishi T, Cook KS. 1993. Generalized exchange and social dilemmas. Soc. Psychol. Q. 56:235–48
Yamagishi T, Hayashi N. 1996. Selective play: social embeddedness of social dilemmas. In Frontiers in Social
Dilemmas Research, ed. WBG Liebrand, DM Messick, pp. 363–84. New York: Springer
Yamagishi T, Matsuda M, Yoshikai N, Takahashi H, Usui Y. 2009. Solving the lemons problem with reputa-
tion. In eTrust: Forming Relationships in the Online World, ed. KS Cook, C Snijders, V Buskens, C Cheshire,
pp. 73–109. New York: Russell Sage Found.
Yamagishi T, Yamagishi M. 1994. Trust and commitment in the United States and Japan. Motiv. Emotion
Yoeli E, Hoffman M, Rand DG, Nowak MA. 2013. Powering up with indirect reciprocity in a large-scale field
experiment. PNAS 110:10424–29
Zelizer V. 1983. Morals and Markets: The Development of Life Insurance in the United States. New Brunswick,
NJ: Transaction Beyond Altruism 10.21
... Norms are instead less formalized 'unwritten rules' of behavior that govern acceptance within groups [21]. Participation in groups forms expectations of what is considered normal [24]. Norm studies include a focus on three primary aspects: rules, reputations, and relations. ...
... Similarly, formal rewards can include plaques, and informal rewards can be high-fives. Reputations are the collection of expectations accrued in groups over time [24]. A person can have the reputation of repeatedly being kind, or a person can have a reputation of recurrently being irresponsible. ...
Full-text available
Whether or not a person chooses to act philanthropically can seem like a personal decision. Yet, giving is inherently a social act, minimally involving a giver and a receiver. The relational aspects of giving decisions can be studied by investigating social networks. What is known about the role of social networks in charitable giving? To answer this question, this study utilizes bibliometric techniques to review existing literature in a systematic manner. Applying these tools to social science research facilitates integration of knowledge across multiple disciplines and diverse methodological approaches. Across the reviewed research, there are five central themes. First, networks can shape values of efforts to support the public good. Second, networks can informally punish people for acting too self-interestedly. Third, networks can join together or exclude, contributing to social inequality and its reproduction over time. Fourth, networks can maintain group dynamics. Fifth, networks can pattern behaviors into habits, form interdependence, situate what is considered normal, and provide stability in times of crisis. Implications of existing research are drawn toward understanding young adulthood within its networked social contexts of generosity.
... Behavior-science suggests that people may be influenced by the actions and perceived beliefs of others (Simpson and Willer, 2015) and that individuals show greater propensity to teamwork in the achievement of a common goal when social norms support a behavior (Niemiec et al., 2016). The opinions of family, peers and friends are often highly influential when a person makes a decision (Martínez-García et al., 2013;Kauppinen et al., 2013;Mills et al., 2017). ...
Because high‐status employees make disproportional contributions to firms, prior literature suggests that their departure would undermine various organizational outcomes. Building on recent literature, however, we suspect that a high‐status employee may have seized disproportional resources and credits from coworkers, thereby restricting them from performing, particularly when the work context is more independent and contested. As a result, the departure of a high‐status employee may bring staying coworkers more resources and incentives to perform, causing their performance to improve. To test this possibility, we examine the effect of high‐status analysts' departure on the individual performance of analysts who remain, using a sample of sell‐side analysts in Chinese financial brokerage firms. Employing a before‐and‐after treatment research design, we find evidence that after the departure of a high‐status analyst, the staying coworkers' individual performance is significantly improved. It is particularly so when they share greater industry overlap with the departing analyst. Our extensional analyses also investigate additional contingencies, which helps provide valuable hints about possible mechanisms.
Agency theory explains many processes of interest to sociologists, such as overcoming conflicts of interest, information management, delegation of power and control, and the social dilemmas that arise when one acts on behalf of another. Despite its explanatory power, agency theory has been underused in sociology. To better use and contribute to agency theory, the author proposes a sociological agency model (SAM). This model incorporates a wide range of motivations and behaviors for both principals and agents, embeds the principal-agent dyad in meso- and macro-level structures, and considers the role of legitimacy of control. The author uses SAM to explain how parents and children negotiate teen sexual behavior. Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health support the expectations of SAM as applied to parent-child negotiations of teen sex. Teenagers avoid parental supervision and control and strategically conceal information to have sex against the wishes of parents.
Full-text available
Altruism is a well-studied phenomenon in the social sciences, but online altruism has received relatively little attention. In this article, we examine several cases of online altruism, and analyse the key characteristics of the phenomenon, in particular comparing and contrasting it against models of traditional donor behaviour. We suggest a novel definition of online altruism, and provide an in-depth, mixed-method study of a significant case, represented by the r/Assistance subreddit. We argue that online altruism can be characterized by its differing experiences compared to traditional giving, from a giver’s point of view, and unique mechanisms and actions made possible by the internet. These findings explain why people give to anonymous strangers online and provide a new perspective on altruism that is important in building a more altruistic internet and society.
Strong sustainability argues that substitutions of human and reproducible capitals for natural capital are very limited; hence, upholding strong sustainability principles in ecological and climate policies is necessary to tackle existing global ecological crisis. Implementing these principles requires the accumulation of altruistic capital which includes altruistic preferences and behaviors in individuals and organizations. In this article, we present a narrative arguing that cultivating loving-kindness and compassion (LK&C) in individuals is key to the accumulation of altruistic capital. More importantly, we provide several logical arguments to support two hypotheses: first, it is possible for individuals to develop LK&C; and second, LK&C in individuals can be cultivated limitlessly. Our analysis is based on the classical cognitive framework of Buddhism through the lenses of Middle Way Consequence philosophy.
Social-psychological approaches to the study of morality typically rely on the individual as the key unit of analysis, with less attention to morality as it is enacted in groups or larger social structures. Sociology, on the other hand, has long been concerned with collective morality. This chapter synthesizes recent cross-disciplinary work on one key question about the operation of morality in small groups: how do groups’ morally-relevant decisions and behaviors differ from those of individuals acting alone? I focus on one morally-charged social behavior—prosocial behavior—and ask what situations and intergroup dynamics facilitate, or inhibit, prosocial behaviors made at the group versus individual level. While some prior work suggests that groups “behave badly,” other research demonstrates that groups “do good,” compared to their individual counterparts. I identify key moderators and contexts that might explain these conflicting results. This chapter concludes with a call for social psychologists to further expand beyond the domain of the individual decision-maker. After all, morally-relevant decision-making commonly operates in groups, and is critical in fostering social order.
This chapter reviews the concept of civic morality and its role in democracy. The first section defines civic morality, including what it is as well as what it is not. Simply stated, civic morality is the belief that one should engage in efforts to promote social and public goods along with actions intended to promote the well being of others beyond the self. These are neither solely personal individual beliefs that are not publicly shared nor government prescribed public acts. Second, the chapter explains why civic morality matters. Importance includes its role in fostering a social lubricant to collective action, trust in people and social institutions, and democratic participation. The third section summarizes major approaches to the study of civic morality. Interdisciplinary studies are best categorized across the levels of their units of analysis: micro, meso, and macro. Key takeaways are offered based on the findings of existing studies about the relationship of civic morality and other important social phenomena. Reviewed findings are related to philanthropy and generosity, generational changes and youth, socioeconomic inequalities, religiosity and culture, and social norms.
Scholars increasingly have recognized that moral decision making takes place within relationships. I argue that those relationships are sometimes imagined. People draw on the expectations of culturally familiar relationships to know what they owe each other in situations that are morally uncertain. This sociological perspective treats relationship schemas both as a resource that people use creatively and as constraining their self-interested action. It helps shed light on at least two puzzles: why people participate in high-risk activism rather than free-ride on the efforts of others, and why people sometimes understand their loyalty to the nation as including support for inclusive policies.
Full-text available
Przyjmując perspektywę mikrosocjologii, etnometodologii i socjologii Goffmanowskiej, badam relację między sztucznością (teatralnością) sytuacji decyzyjnej, dynamiką afektywną wytworzoną w „laboratorium” (w sali teatralnej) oraz procesami interakcyjnymi między uczestnikami. W celu odsłonięcia milcząco stosowanych metod koordynacji działań (w przeciwieństwie do jawnego stosowania się do reguł instytucjonalnych), skorzystałem z nowatorskiej metodologii. Wraz z artystami sztuk performatywnych stworzyliśmy sztuczną sytuację badawczą (interaktywne przedstawienie teatralne), w którym sześć osób znalazło się w sytuacji dylematu moralnego. Interakcje tych osób zostały sfilmowane, a następnie przeanalizowane za pomocą wideografii. Pozycja żadnej osoby nie była uprzywilejowana. Co się dzieje, gdy obce sobie osoby zajmujące równą pozycję spotykają się z dylematem moralnym? W artykule skupiam się na analizie przemocy, która pojawiła się w grupach lub z którą grupy musiały się zmierzyć. Pokażę, jak przemoc jest społecznie mobilizowana i relatywizowana w celu zachowania ładu interakcyjnego.
Full-text available
Repeated interaction and social networks are commonly considered viable solutions to collective action problems. This article identifies and systematically measures four general mechanisms—that is, generalized altruism, group solidarity, reciprocity, and the threat of sanctioning— and tests which of them brings about cooperation in the context of Ugandan producer organizations. Using an innovative methodological framework that combines “lab-in-the-field” experiments with survey interviews and complete social networks data, the article goes beyond the assessment of a relationship between social networks and collective outcomes to study the mechanisms that favor cooperative behavior. The article first establishes a positive relationship between position in the network structure and propensity to cooperate in the producer organization and then uses farmers’ behavior in dictator and public goods games to test different mechanisms that may account for such a relationship. Results show that cooperation is induced by patterns of reciprocity that emerge through repeated interaction rather than other-regarding preferences like altruism or group solidarity.
Full-text available
The self-interest motive is singularly powerful according to many of the most influential theories of human behavior and the layperson alike. In the present article the author examines the role the assumption of self-interest plays in its own confirmation. It is proposed that a norm exists in Western cultures that specifies self-interest both is and ought to be a powerful determinant of behavior. This norm influences people's actions and opinions as well as the accounts they give for their actions and opinions. In particular; it leads people to act and speak as though they care more about their material self-interest than they do. Consequences of misinterpreting the "fact" of self-interest are discussed.
Full-text available
Research shows that enforcing cooperation using contracts or tangible sanctions can backfire, undermining people’s intrinsic motivation to cooperate: when the enforcement is removed, people are less trusting or trustworthy than when there is no enforcement to begin with. The author examines whether reputation systems have similar consequences for generalized trust and trustworthiness. Using a web-based experiment simulating online market transactions (studies 1 and 2), he shows that reputation systems can reinforce generalized trust and trustworthiness, unlike contractual enforcement or relational enforcement based on repeated interactions. In a survey experiment (study 3), he finds that recalling their eBay feedback scores made participants more trusting and trustworthy. These results are predicated on the diffuse nature of reputational enforcement to reinforce perceptions of trust and trustworthiness. These results have implications for understanding how different forms of governance affect generalized trust and trustworthiness.
Full-text available
Publisher Summary Individuals come to “know” their own attitudes, emotions, and other internal states partially by inferring them from observations of their own overt behavior and/ or the circumstances in which this behavior occurs. Thus, to the extent that internal cues are weak, ambiguous, or uninterpretable, the individual is functionally in the same position as an outside observer, an observer who must necessarily rely upon those same external cues to infer the individual's inner states. This chapter traces the conceptual antecedents and empirical consequences of these propositions, attempts to place the theory in a slightly enlarged frame of reference, and clarifies just what phenomena the theory can and cannot account for in the rapidly growing experimental literature of self-attribution phenomena. Several experiments and paradigms from the cognitive dissonance literature are amenable to self-perception interpretations. But precisely because such experiments are subject to alternative interpretations, they cannot be used as unequivocal evidence for self-perception theory. The reinterpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena and other self-perception phenomena have been discussed. The chapter highlights some differences between self-perception and interpersonal perception and shift of paradigm in social psychology. It discusses some unsolved problems, such as the conceptual status of noncognitive response classes and the strategy of functional analysis.
Recent research has focused on the role of social networks in facilitating participation in protest and social movement organizations. This paper elaborates three currents of microstructural explanation, based on information, identity, and exchange. In assessing these perspectives, it compares their treatment of multivalence, the tendency for social ties to inhibit as well as promote participation. Considering two dimensions of multivalence—the value of the social tie and the direction of social pressure—this paper discusses problems of measurement and interpretation in network analysis of movement participation. A critical review suggests some directions for future research.
Scholars have long debated the impact of status hierarchies on group welfare. On the one hand, functionalist accounts posit that the status hierarchies that emerge within groups benefit those groups by providing order, coordination, and incentives for individual sacrifice. In contrast, critical accounts argue that status hierarchies are only loosely tied to merit, create divisions among individuals, foster mistrust, and hamper communication and collective success. The current chapter integrates these two opposing views by proposing a bounded functionalist perspective of status hierarchies. Specifically, we argue that group members strive to form functional hierarchies that will foster their collective success, but they are constrained in their ability to do so by the difficulties in allocating status based on merit and by the opposing force of individual self-interest. © Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014. All rights are reserved.
This review focuses on formal theories and models of collective action. There are many types of collective action, and they cannot all be captured with the same formal model. Four types of models are reviewed: single-actor models which treat the “group” behavior as given; models of the interdependent aggregation of individual choices into collective action; models of the collective decisions of individuals with different interests; and models of the dynamic interactions among collective actors and their opponents. All models require simplifying assumptions about some aspects of a situation so that others may be addressed. Models of the aggregation of individual choices have shown the greatest recent growth, have employed a wide variety of assumptions about individual behavior and coordination mechanisms, have identified complex interaction effects of group heterogeneity, and generally exhibit thresholds, discontinuities, and internal group differentiation. Models of dynamic interactions require further development but promise to be enriched by accumulating empirical time series data on collective events. Greater attention is urged to technical issues of formal symbolic mathematical analysis, experimental design, response surface analysis, and technical problems in the reduction and presentation of complex interactions.