Socially Acceptable

In our daily meanderings we interact with people on a wide range of levels. Some of those interactions may be important to our well being – a routine visit to our Doctor’s office, for example – or of no lasting importance at all, such as buying an ice cream on a sunny day at the beach. Which interactions do we remember? We can all quote a few examples of bad and good interactions, but what about the rest?

A new publication by Volstorf et al (1) has attempted to answer this question. They used a game in which two people can decide independently whether to cooperate with each other or to cheat on each other. It is known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” and has a format familiar to all of us who watch crime dramas on TV. If they both cooperate, they score high; if they both cheat, they score less well but if one cheats, he/she does very well and the cooperative one loses big time.

 Each player has a large number of interactions, and then they all assemble a week later and play again. They cannot remember each interaction, there were too many in a short time. The question is whom do they remember accurately – those who cooperated or those who cheated? Intuition or prejudice would lead us to hope that the cooperators would be remembered, but we would probably suspect that the cheaters would make the bigger impression. Given the opportunity, the temptation to play “tit-for-tat” is pretty strong even when we know we shouldn’t.

The good news is that our brains are too busy to get cluttered up with all that stuff.  If an individual had similar numbers of cheating or cooperative interactions, there was no selective action against those who had cheated them. The participants, who had very low numbers of interactions where they were cooperated with or were cheated, remembered that well and responded in like manner.

We remember the rare interactions best. The particularly good or the particularly bad service in a restaurant, for example. We take the usual good that we get everyday for granted.  It is departures from the norm that sticks, whether that norm that we have become used to is good or bad.  If we become used to a very high standard of performance, we get very sniffy if it doesn’t come up to snuff on some occasion. But the corollary is also true that we can get used to consistently bad interactions and be wonderfully grateful when we get a mediocre one instead of the plain bad that we have come to accept.

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