Human Nature

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 1–25 | Cite as

Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms

  • Ernst Fehr
  • Urs Fischbacher
  • Simon Gächter


This paper provides strong evidence challenging the self-interest assumption that dominates the behavioral sciences and much evolutionary thinking. The evidence indicates that many people have a tendency to voluntarily cooperate, if treated fairly, and to punish noncooperators. We call this behavioral propensity “strong reciprocity” and show empirically that it can lead to almost universal cooperation in circumstances in which purely self-interested behavior would cause a complete breakdown of cooperation. In addition, we show that people are willing to punish those who behaved unfairly towards a third person or who defected in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with a third person. This suggests that strong reciprocity is a powerful device for the enforcement of social norms involving, for example, food sharing or collective action. Strong reciprocity cannot be rationalized as an adaptive trait by the leading evolutionary theories of human cooperation (in other words, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, indirect reciprocity, and costly signaling theory). However, multilevel selection theories of cultural evolution are consistent with strong reciprocity.

Key words

Evolution Game theory Human cooperation Punishment Social norms Strong reciprocity 


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Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Empirical Research in EconomicsUniversity of ZürichZürichSwitzerland
  2. 2.University of St. GallenUSA

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