The asymmetry of give and take

Although people reciprocate kindnesses proportionately, slings and arrows prompt bullets and grenades.

By Laura Putre

Photography by Getty

At Camp David, Keysar suggests Barak’s offer wasn’t enough to “clear the balance sheet.”

During the Camp David peace talks in 2000, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a piece of land comparable in size to the West Bank territories they’d lost in 1967. Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat turned it down. The offer was not enough.

Psychology professor Boaz Keysar wonders whether Arafat was simply acting the way most people do when they feel taken advantage of: they want back what they see as rightfully theirs—and then some.

Keysar, who studies language and miscommunication, and his colleagues have found that although people reciprocate kindnesses proportionately, slings and arrows prompt bullets and grenades. “Even something that is not so strong as a vindictive action—something simply perceived as a negative act,” Keysar says, “escalates quickly.”

For the study, published in the December 2008 Psychological Science, Keysar and his research team, including Chicago Booth behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley, conducted five experiments on reciprocity using University of Chicago students, Hyde Park residents, and other volunteers. The researchers paired up participants for several games of give and take. In one a designated leader decided how much of $100 to give to a partner. In another, leaders decided how much of $100 to take from their partners.

When the roles were reversed, Keysar found that those who’d been recipients in the giving game handed out a comparable sum when they were the ones doing the giving. But those who’d initially had money taken from them seized larger sums when it was their chance to do the taking.

“We tend to think about the ancient law of ‘an eye for an eye’ as harsh, even barbaric if taken literally,” says Keysar, quoting the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. “But legal scholars have argued that it was actually a very progressive law, because it restricted retribution to an in-kind response.” Lose one eye, take one eye—but not more. “What our findings show is that if you leave people to their own devices, they would take more. They would take two eyes for an eye.”

Subjects in the study also consistently reacted better to receiving something than to having it taken from them, even when the gift left them with less money, say $30 instead of $50. Leaders, however, thought they were being fair when they took only $50. “They did not anticipate,” Keysar says, “that the other person was going to perceive them as doing something negative.” What’s more, he discovered that as the game wore on, each successive round saw partners grabbing more and more as they alternated the taking role. Perceiving the takers as selfish, the participants became less generous.

It was that finding that reminded Keysar of the Israelis and Palestinians. In the Psychological Science article’s conclusion, he reasoned that because of the asymmetry between giving and taking, “the harm of taking something away cannot be undone by simply giving something comparable in return.” So Arafat found Barak’s West Bank offer insufficient, though to the Israeli leader it made sense. “Clearing the balance sheet in negative social exchanges,” Keysar wrote, “is likely to require that people be more generous than their intuitions suggest.”

Perception is a frequent topic for Keysar, who has a psychology PhD from Princeton and a BA in psychology and philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has explored the ambiguity of language and, as he puts it, “how people try to step into other people’s shoes and fail.” In a 2007 study on communication effectiveness, Keysar found that people in long-term relationships miscommunicate more than strangers when they’re trying to share new information. In that study, subjects described unusual shapes to their partners, who then had to pick the shapes out of a lineup.

Thinking their partners already knew what they were talking about, subjects who knew each other conveyed less information than those who didn’t—and confused each other more often. “A lot of miscommunication is systematic, rooted in the ambiguity of language and in the way our mind handles, or mishandles, this ambiguity,” he says. “The problem is, most of the time we don’t even realize it.”

Keysar offers an example from his own life. As newlyweds 20 years ago, he and Chicago Booth professor Linda Ginzel visited his family in Israel for Passover. “One afternoon we were browsing through a bookstore in downtown Jerusalem,” he recalls. At a table that displayed several Haggadahs—the book used during the seder—his wife asked, “So the seder is going to be all in Hebrew?”

“I said, ‘yes,’ we left the store, and she didn’t speak to me for two days. I thought I did well—she asked me a question, I gave her the answer. Good job, Boaz. But she was thinking, ‘I don’t know Hebrew, he knows that, I clearly suggested that we buy a Haggadah in English. He obviously ignored my request, therefore he is egocentric and rude.’”

People like Ginzel who are natural speakers—those used to doing the talking—think that “what they imply is obvious to the entire world,” Keysar says, “overestimating how well they communicate their intentions.” Listeners like himself tend to be egocentric, “systematically failing to take the perspective of the other. And when you share a lot, it doesn’t get better. It actually gets worse.”

Like reciprocity, communication all depends on perception.

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