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Being naughty has more impact than being nice

December 17, 2008 |  2:12 pm

Grinch1A new study appears to shed some light on why holiday gift-giving may be such a touchy matter and why your mother-in-law is still angry that you missed last year's holiday get-together.

Researchers from the University of Chicago conducted a series of experiments with college students and people in downtown Chicago to show that, in everyday social exchanges, being mean to people has a lot more impact than being nice. The study is published in the December issue of Psychological Science.

Unlike economic exchanges, social exchanges have no well-defined value, said Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology and lead author of the study, in a news release. People assume that giving and taking are to be repaid in equivalent measure. But, in fact, the study shows that giving and taking produce different patterns of reciprocity. The researchers conducted five experiments in which people played games that assigned them as givers or takers and allowed them to reciprocate acts of giving or taking. They found the positive action of giving is reciprocated in comparable measure whereas the negative action of taking is reciprocated more harshly, which may trigger an escalation of negative social exchanges.

According to the study authors, reciprocity is crucial for maintaining social order and is central to many areas of social life -- not to mention world peace.

"The asymmetry in reciprocity may provide insight into the apparent ease with which conflict escalates, and the tendency for generosity and compassion to merely sputter," they wrote in the paper.

The study suggests that the harm done by taking something cannot be undone by simply giving something comparable in return.

"The culturally conferred wisdom about reciprocity appears to be miscalibrated and in need of revision," the authors wrote. "You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I will take both of yours."

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: AP / Warner Bros.