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Written by: Bob Bertsch

What’s the best strategy for getting others to cooperate with us?

We need cooperation from others to survive and thrive, but securing that cooperation can be challenged by conflicts between self-interest and collective interest. Decades of research suggested that the most effective strategy was strict reciprocity or “tit-for-tat,” in which an individual’s level of cooperation was dependent on the previous level of cooperation offered by the person they were interacting with. McClintock & Liebrand (1988) found that people perceived others pursuing a tit-for-tat strategy as “more intelligent and stronger” than those using a cooperative or competitive strategy.

Where tit-for-tat fails us

The findings favoring a tit-for-tat strategy were consistent with the conventional wisdom of “what goes around comes around” or “do unto others as they do unto you.” However, a 2009 study by Klapwijk and Van Lange highlighted a couple of issues with the tit-for-tat strategy.

The first issue is with the initial interaction. If we depend only on the previous actions of others in choosing whether to cooperate, all of our interactions hinge on the first interaction. If person A meets person B, and person B is perceived by person A as uncooperative, then tit-for-tat calls for an uncooperative response from person A, which in turn calls for an uncooperative response from person B. Klapwijk and Van Lange see this as an explanation for why they observe more enduring interactions where both people cooperate or where neither person cooperates and fewer enduring interactions where one person cooperates while the other person benefits but doesn’t cooperate. When both people in an interaction follow the tit-for-tat strategy cooperation is either ensured or doomed by the first interaction.

The second issue with the tit-for-tat strategy is the existence of “negative noise.” Klapwijk and Van Lange’s research showed that interactions can be challenged by mistakes that cause actual outcomes to be worse than they were intended to be, which they call “negative noise.” Unintentionally saying the wrong thing or forgetting to reply to an email are examples of negative noise. They can cause the person we are interacting with to perceive us as uncooperative even though our intention may have been to cooperate. According to Klapwijk and Van Lange, “In a world where unintended errors (or incidents of noise) are doomed to happen, it is not advisable to adopt strict reciprocity.”

Leading with Generosity

Given the issues with the tit-for-tat strategy, it’s important to deviate from it. However, based on the research evidence, including that presented by Klapwijk and Van Lange, we should not deviate from our own self-interests but towards generosity. Choosing to act less cooperatively than your partner in an interaction leads to very low levels of cooperation while acting more generously helps cope with negative noise and leads to higher levels of cooperation.

Research has shown people very precisely reciprocate the degree of cooperation that they received from the other in the past interaction. With a giving attitude and an assumption in favor of positive intent as the basis of the interaction, trust is more likely to be developed because that generosity is likely to be reciprocated, leading to more cooperation and positive thoughts and feelings.


Klapwijk, A., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2009). Promoting cooperation and trust in “noisy” situations: The power of generosity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 83–103.

McClintock, C. G., & Liebrand, W. B. (1988). Role of interdependence structure, individual value orientation, and another’s strategy in social decision making: A transformational analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(3), 396–409.