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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Extortion, intuition, and the dark side of reciprocity

Bernhard, R., & Cushman, F. A. 
(2021, April 22). 


Extortion occurs when one person uses some combination of threats and promises to extract an unfair share of benefits from another. Although extortion is a pervasive feature of human interaction, it has received relatively little attention in psychological research. To this end, we begin by observing that extortion is structured quite similarly to far better-studied “reciprocal” social behaviors, such as conditional cooperation and retributive punishment. All of these strategies are designed to elicit some desirable behavior from a social partner, and do so by constructing conditional incentives; the main difference is that the desired behavioral response is an unfair or unjust allocation of resources during extortion, whereas it is often a fair or just distribution of resources for reciprocal cooperation and punishment. Thus, we conjecture, a common set of psychological mechanisms may render these strategies successful. We know from prior work that prosocial forms of reciprocity often work best when implemented inflexibly and intuitively, rather than deliberatively. This both affords long-term commitment to the reciprocal strategy, and also signals this commitment to social partners. We argue that, for the same reasons, extortion is likely to depend largely upon inflexible, intuitive psychological processes. Several existing lines of circumstantial evidence support this conjecture.

From the Conclusion

An essential part of our analysis is to characterize strategies, rather than individual behaviors, as “prosocial” or “antisocial”.  Extortionate strategies can be  implemented by behaviors that “help” (as  in  the case of a manager who gives promotions to those who work uncompensated hours), while prosocial strategies can be implemented by behaviors that harm (as in the case of the CEO who finds out and reprimands this manager).   This manner of thinking at the level of strategies, rather than behavior, invites a broader realignment of our perspective on the relationship between intuition and social behavior. If our focus were on individual behaviors, we might have posed  the question, “Does intuition support cooperation or defection?”.  Framed  this way,  the recent literature could be taken to suggest the answer is “cooperation”—and,  therefore, that intuition promotes prosociality. Surely this is often true, but we suggest that intuitive cooperation can also serve antisocial ends. Meanwhile, as we have emphasized, a prosocial strategy such as TFT  may  benefit  from intuitive (reciprocal) defection. Quickly, the question, “Does intuition support cooperation or defection?”—and  any  implied  relationship to the question  “Does intuition support prosocial or antisocial behavior?”—begins to look ill-posed.