Is it all about appearance? Limited cognitive control and information advantage reveal self-serving reciprocity

Maayan Katzir, Shachar Cohen, Eliran Halali

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Previous research on social preferences has found that reciprocal behavior is an automatic response, which requires less cognitive control than self-interested behavior. However, research on unethicality has demonstrated that cognitive control is required to resist the temptation to benefit from engaging in an unethical act, thus suggesting that self-interested behaviors are automatic. By manipulating information asymmetry (i.e., advantage) among trust game receivers, we examined whether the automatic tendency to positively reciprocate a kind gesture is driven by a genuine motivation to be fair, or whether it reflects a motivation to appear fair. In an equal-information condition, we replicated previous findings by showing that limited cognitive control, due to ego-depletion, promotes reciprocal behavior (Experiments 1 & 2). However, this effect did not replicate under time-constraint, an additional manipulation to limit cognitive control (Experiment 3). Importantly, in an advantaged-information condition, under ego-depletion (Experiments 1 & 2) or time-constraint (Experiments 3 & 4) manipulation, participants did not exhibit enhanced reciprocity. Rather, in three out of these four experiments, and as confirmed by a meta-analysis that additionally included a pilot experiment, participants exploited their information advantage and positively reciprocated to a lesser extent than participants whose cognitive control was intact. These results suggest that the automatic preference for reciprocity might be more driven by a self-serving motivation to appear (rather than to be) fair than is typically credited. We further discuss various other findings supporting the notion that what may appear as automatic pro-sociality may in fact reflect an automatic self-serving motivation of self-presentation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104192
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - Nov 2021

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© 2021 Elsevier Inc.


  • Asymmetric information
  • Cognitive control
  • Self-interest
  • Self-presentation
  • Social preferences


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