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Defectors Cannot Be Detected during“Small Talk” with Strangers


To account for the widespread human tendency to cooperate in one-shot social dilemmas, some theorists have proposed that cooperators can be reliably detected based on ethological displays that are difficult to fake. Experimental findings have supported the view that cooperators can be distinguished from defectors based on "thin slices" of behavior, but the relevant cues have remained elusive, and the role of the judge's perspective remains unclear. In this study, we followed triadic conversations among unacquainted same-sex college students with unannounced dyadic one-shot prisoner's dilemmas, and asked participants to guess the PD decisions made toward them and among the other two participants. Two other sets of participants guessed the PD decisions after viewing videotape of the conversations, either with foreknowledge (informed), or without foreknowledge (naïve), of the post-conversation PD. Only naïve video viewers approached better-than-chance prediction accuracy, and they were significantly accurate at predicting the PD decisions of only opposite-sexed conversation participants. Four ethological displays recently proposed to cue defection in one-shot social dilemmas (arms crossed, lean back, hand touch, and face touch) failed to predict either actual defection or guesses of defection by any category of observer. Our results cast doubt on the role of "greenbeard" signals in the evolution of human prosociality, although they suggest that eavesdropping may be more informative about others' cooperative propensities than direct interaction.

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