Last night on ABC’s Primtime Basic Instincts special they continued asking the question “what would you do?” The ethical dilemma involved patrons at a diner receiving too much change after making a purchase. For those of you who have read my articles Our Biases Televised and the first in the Commercial Culture series you will be familiar with the some of the psychological and cultural implications of this experiment.

After being purposely given $10, $20 and even $100 over the correct amount, customers were observed to see if they would return the money or simply leave the store. Slightly less than 50% return the money right away, of those who walked out of the diner, 33% returned the money after being interviewed stating they hadn’t realized the mistake. Regardless of whether they realized it or not, there was still a significant percentage of people who did not return the over paid amount.

Those who returned the change seemed to do so for more reason than out of the goodness of thier hearts. Firmly at work here is the concept of reciprocity (or in this case reciprocal altruism), whereby we all have the innate concept of ‘what goes around, comes around.’

“The notion that good deeds reciprocate one another is essential to human society,” said Carrie Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University. “It’s what we count on to enable social interactions and social exchanges to work.”

Rooted in our own evolutionary psychology, this concept can be related to game theory (which was featured last week on the same program) and the prisoner’s dilemma model. In this scenario a person will cooperate with another based on the other persons last action. In other words, those who walked out of the diner with the additional money regardless of whether they noticed it or not, if remembered by the cashier, will not be trusted the next time.

The two big questions to ask are 1) Why do people violate this principle and most important 2) What happens when a majority of people begin to violate it?

As society has progressed over the past century we have become less dependent on our neighbors, interact less with friends and communicate through impersonal emails and various electronic media. This lack of contact is inhibiting our ability to take social cues, debilitating our trust and making it easier to walk out with the extra money. Just as in the program we may still be guilted into behaving properly, but the next time when the camera isn’t on what will dictate our actions, relying on a principle that took evolutionary history to refine or the fear of being caught?

What effect will this have on our civic institutions, our laws? Could corporate scandals, such as Enron’s collapse, Hewlett Packard’s pretexting scandal and Steve Job’s stock options, be explained in part to the decline in reciprocity? Dr. Keating suggests

knowingly not doing the right thing can have asmall, but significant, effect on society. She cites studies showing that, “once you start cheating on the little stuff, it’s easier to
cheat on the bigger stuff.”