Motivational systems in dyadic cooperation are designed for reputation-based partner choice
Dyadic cooperation is the building block of human social exchange. But forming cooperative partnerships poses two problems: choosing partners and being chosen by partners. A growing body of research suggests that reputation-based partner choice creates competition to be chosen by desirable cooperative partners and therefore motivates people to behave generously and acquire a reputation as a valuable cooperator. However, a reputation as a cooperator may also attract cheaters, undesirable partners who do not reciprocate cooperation. Evidence indicates that inflicting punishment can deter cheating, but appearing punitive may drive away cooperators as well. Despite the apparent dilemma, little is known about motivations to punish in the presence of competition to be chosen. I hypothesize that motivational systems are designed to attract desirable partners and manage reputations by up-regulating cooperation and down-regulating punishment behaviors; systems will do so in response to cues of reputation-based partner choice—cues indicating that one is in competition to be chosen as a partner. Three studies tested this hypothesis. Studies 1 and 2 assessed motivations to cooperate and punish using economic games with a punishment option. Cues of reputation-based partner choice were either measured (as estimates of how many outside options potential partners would have; study 1) or experimentally manipulated (in study 2; cues of group membership and anonymity indicated whether one is being evaluated as a potential partner). Study 3 examined whether there is a trade-off between acquiring cooperative versus punitive reputations. Results support the hypothesis. The cues of reputation-based partner choice up-regulated motivations to cooperate while down-regulating motivations to punish. It is also shown that punishing harms one’s cooperative reputation and lowers the probability of attracting partners, confirming that the function of these motivational calibrations is to improve one’s reputation as a cooperation partner. The present research provides evidence that motivational systems are designed for managing reputations to be chosen by desirable cooperation partners.