The intense furor surrounding the ballot count in the recent presidential election underscores the importance of trust and fairness in human life. We became an interdependent social species because (1) our immature birth brain requires an extended dependent development and (2) our large capacity for autobiographical memory allows us to compute and remember reciprocal behaviors.
An innate (principally) frontal lobe system that matures through experience processes the key strategy for regulating reciprocity, a strategy commonly called tit-for-tat: cooperate with others on the first encounter, and then imitate whatever the other person does on subsequent occasions (or to modify the Biblical injunction, Do unto others as they have done unto you.). We see this at many levels—such as in reciprocated Christmas card mailings that continue until one person drops the other, and in our tendency to quit patronizing a business that gave poor value, but to give it another chance with a change of ownership.
Young children begin to develop tit-for-tat beliefs and behaviors, and the ability to detect cheating in others through informal play with family and friends, and by carrying out household tasks imposed by their parents (who can give or withhold favors). School provides a more complicated formal setting that introduces them to (1) a large non-kin group in a limited enclosed space, and (2) deferred rewards/punishments, such as within extended curricular projects and grades based on weeks of cumulated work.
Our emotional body language is somewhat transparent, so we become adept at detecting the subtle guilt signals that tit-for-tat cheaters often send. We similarly exhibit emotional displays that express our feelings to others about exchanges (for example, gratitude suggests fairness, and anger suggests unfairness). We tend to break off relationships that become untrustworthy.
Such experiences eventually move us towards a selection of personal friendships and business alliances with those we’ve come to trust. When a relationship reaches a sufficient level of trust through many successful tit-for-tat experiences, the parties often quit keeping score, and (formally or informally) commit to an extended more relaxed altruistic relationship. Marriage and collegial partnerships are examples of positive situations in which both parties can assume fair cooperative behavior and trust over an extended period.
Our complex society also requires a more abstract altruistic commitment—to do things for others with no hope of return (such as donating money to the poor, or to charitable organizations that will probably never help us). Further, we normally tip selected service employees (such as waiters), although we could usually get away without leaving a tip.
The current close division of power within our federal government suggests that congressional politicians currently in power should collaborate with the opposing party whenever possible because the death or defeat of a few members could change the power balances—and then the tit-for-tat strategy will come back to haunt them if they haven’t been fair and cooperative. Better yet, cooperate and negotiate with others whenever possible simply because it’s the best way for a democratic society to operate.
The situation is similar in school. The students’ sense of fairness matures during these years—and so they rank teacher fairness as a very important quality in studies that have been done of students’ attitudes about teacher behavior. Further, experienced educators know that teachers viewed as unfair by their students tend to experience a lot of tit-for-tat student misbehavior—do unto others as they have done unto you.
Robert Wright (2000) recently wrote a thoughtful thoughtprovoking analysis of this important issue. In Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny he argues that biological evolution favored a pattern of fair cooperative behavior within a species, and this also drove a form of cultural evolution that similarly favors fair cooperative behavior. The emergence of democratic societies is certainly one successful example, but we also see it in the long-term success of businesses and other social organizations that function in a fair and cooperative manner.