“Now, if these were people [and not computers],” Nass says, “we would expect that if I just helped you and then I asked you for help, you would feel obligated to help me a great deal. But if I just helped you and someone else asked you to help, you would feel less obligated to help them.”

What the study demonstrated was that people do in fact obey the rule of reciprocity when it comes to computers. When the first computer was helpful to people, they helped it way more on the boring task than the other computer in the room. They reciprocated.

“But when the computer didn’t help them, they actually did more color matching for the computer across the room than the computer they worked with, teaching the computer [they worked with] a lesson for not being helpful,” says Nass.

Very likely, the humans involved had no idea they were treating these computers so differently. Their own behavior was invisible to them. Nass says that all day long, our interactions with the machines around us — our iPhones, our laptops — is subtly shaped by social rules we aren’t necessarily aware we’re applying to nonhumans.