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Mental Models of Cooperation: Why Prosocial Behavior is Typically (Mis)perceived as a Sign of Intelligence
Current theories suggest that actors who cooperate in one-shot interactions will comparatively be perceived as less intelligent; i.e., one-shot cooperation will be perceived as a sign of lower intelligence. We challenge this view. Integrating insights from conflict misperception and behavioral game theory, we propose that observers will heuristically think about one-shot cooperation like it is a coordination problem; one-shot cooperation (and prosocial behaviors that could be driven by one-shot cooperation tendencies) will be interpreted as an attempt to coordinate on win-win outcomes, which will be perceived as a sign of higher intelligence. We confirm our theory’s predictions across nine studies (n=4,401). For example, managers are more likely to hire workers for intelligence-based tasks if workers previously cooperated in one-shot interactions; surprisingly, workers who cooperate in one-shot interactions are not more intelligent in reality, highlighting the role of misperceptions. We rule out several alternative accounts (e.g., general halo effects, costly signaling).