February 22, 2011

Temporal Dynamics of Social Exchange and the Development of Solidarity: "Testing the Waters" vs. "Taking a Leap of Faith"

Build professional relationships slowly and consistently over time for stability, robustness, and value.

The Idea

Build professional relationships slowly and consistently over time for stability, robustness, and value.

The Research

In both their personal and private lives, people commonly employ one of two basic strategies when forming new relationships. Some prefer to test the waters, building relationships gradually through incremental steps of commitment. Others take a leap of faith, making generous gestures of commitment and investment right away. Despite the modern-day emphasis on the importance of building networks, there is little research that informs the way different relationship-building strategies play out, particularly in professional settings, where much can depend on regularly sharing information, services, and goods.

Professor Ko Kuwabara worked with Oliver Sheldon of Rutgers to shed light on the benefits of each strategy, using experimental methods and techniques from game theory to observe how patterns and time frames of interactions affect relationship building. In the experiments, modeled to mimic a simple cooperative relationship between two people, subjects made small financial exchanges with strangers via computer. In each round, subjects received an endowment of points, which they could keep for themselves or give away to their partner. For every point a subject and his or her partner gave away, they received double that amount to split with each other. The strangers were actually computer programs written to emulate each of the strategies, either the testing-the-water strategy — hedging at first and building up the relationship gradually over time — or the leap-of-faith strategy, making a full commitment from the start.

In the first experiment, the researchers studied exchange patterns that differed in value of exchange: either entrusting the full amount of points immediately or entrusting small amounts that increased over time. The second experiment was designed to study how consistent versus highly variable frequencies of exchange — on and off at first but at increasing rates, or at full frequency — affected subjects’ interactions and feelings about their partner and their exchanges. A third experiment considered both frequency and amounts at the same time.

A post-exchange survey of the participants suggested that recipients of generous gestures offered early and frequently viewed those offers not as a signal of commitment to the relationship, but simply that the giver was a generous person. Participants reported feeling much more secure and positive about relationships that went through a slow build up.

The researchers determined that, for building cohesive relationships, testing the water was best when it came to exchange value: a relationship that builds over time prompts parties to infer that each person is learning to trust and is earning trust, acknowledgements that are more likely in the long run to result in more stable and robust relationships. When it came to exchange frequency, the researchers found the opposite: starting relationships with infrequent interactions disrupted the relationship rather than creating a sense of momentum toward secure, cohesive bonds.

Practical Applications


You can use this research to help strengthen and build your working relationships with clients, coworkers, employees, your supervisor, and others in your professional network. In the initial stages of each relationship, commit to a pattern of interaction with reasonable and consistent frequency, starting slow to provide opportunities to test each others’ trustworthiness. Gradually show your investment in the relationship, tailoring the amount of time and type of resources you offer according to the individual relationship.

Read the Research

Ko Kuwabara, Oliver Sheldon

"Temporal Dynamics of Social Exchange and the Development of Solidarity: "Testing the Waters" vs. "Taking a Leap of Faith""

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