Skip to main content

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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References Cited

  • Abbink, K., B. Irelenbusch, and E. Renner 2000 The Moonlighting Game: An Experimental Study on Reciprocity and Retribution. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 42:265–277.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Alexander, R. D. 1987 The Biology of Moral Systems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Axelrod, R., and W. D. Hamilton 1981 The Evolution of Cooperation. Science 211:1390–1396.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Basu, Kaushik 1984 The Less Developed Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berg, Joyce, John Dickhaut, and Kevin McCabe 1995 Trust, Reciprocity and Social History. Games and Economic Behavior 10:122–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bolle Friedel 1998 Rewarding Trust: An Experimental Study. Theory and Decision 45:85–100.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bolton, Gary, and Rami Zwick 1995 Anonymity versus Punishment in Ultimatum Bargaining. Games and Economic Behavior 10:95–121.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bolton, Gary E., and Axel Ockenfels 2000 A Theory of Equity, Reciprocity and Competition. American Economic Review 100:166–193.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bowles, Sam, and Herbert Gintis 2001 The Evolution of Strong Reciprocity. Discussion Paper, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Copy in the authors’ possession.

  • Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson 1985 Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • 1988 The Evolution of Reciprocity in Sizable Groups. Journal of Theoretical Biology 132:337–356.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Camerer, Colin F., and Richard H. Thaler 1995 Ultimatums, Dictators and Manners. Journal of Economic Perspectives 9:209–219.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cameron, Lisa A. 1999 Raising the Stakes in the Ultimatum Game: Experimental Evidence from Indonesia. Economic Inquiry 37:47–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Charness, Gary 2000 Responsibility and Effort in an Experimental Labor Market. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 42:375–384.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Charness, Gary, and Matthew Rabin 2000 Social Preferences: Some Simple Tests and a New Model. Unpublished ms., University of California at Berkeley. Copy in the authors’ possession.

  • Dufwenberg, Martin, and Georg Kirchsteiger 1998 A Theory of Sequential Reciprocity. Discussion Paper, Tilburg University. Copy in the authors’ possession.

  • Falk, Armin, and Urs Fischbacher 1999 A Theory of Reciprocity. Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, Working Paper No. 6. University of Zurich.

  • Fehr, Ernst, and Armin Falk 1999 Wage Rigidity in a Competitive Incomplete Contract Market. Journal of Political Economy 107:106–134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fehr, Ernst, and Urs Fischbacher 2001a Third Party Punishment. Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, Working Paper No. 106. University of Zürich.

  • 2001b Retaliation and Reputation. Unpublished ms., Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zürich.

  • Fehr, Ernst, and Simon Gächter 2000 Cooperation and Punishment in Public Goods Experiments. American Economic Review 90:980–994.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 2002 Altruistic Punishment in Humans. Nature 415:137–140.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fehr, Ernst, and Klaus M. Schmidt 1999 A Theory of Fairness, Competition and Co-operation. Quarterly Journal of Economics 114:817–868.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fehr, Ernst, and Elena Tougareva 1995 Do High Monetary Stakes Remove Reciprocal Fairness? Experimental Evidence from Russia. Unpublished ms., Institute for Empirical Economic Research, University of Zurich.

  • Fehr, Ernst, Georg Kirchsteiger, and Arno Riedl 1993 Does Fairness Prevent Market Clearing? An Experimental Investigation. Quarterly Journal of Economics 108:437–460.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 1998 Gift Exchange and Reciprocity in Competitive Experimental Markets. European Economic Review 42:1–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fehr, Ernst, Simon Gächter and Georg Kirchsteiger 1997 Reciprocity as a Contract Enforcement Device. Econometrica 65:833–860.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, James 1971 A Noncooperative Equilibrium for Supergames. Review of Economic Studies 38:1–12.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fudenberg, Drew, and Eric Maskin 1986 The Folk Theorem in Repeated Games with Discounting or with Incomplete Information. Econometrica 54:533–556.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gintis, Herbert 2000 Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality. Journal of Theoretical Biology 206:169–179.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gintis, Herbert, Eric Smith, and Sam Bowles 2001 Costly Signaling and Cooperation. Journal of Theoretical Biology, forthcoming.

  • Gächter, Simon, and Armin Falk 2001 Reputation and Reciprocity: Consequences for the Labour Relation. Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, Working Paper No. 19. University of Zurich. (Also Scandinavian Journal of Economics, forthcoming)

  • Güth, Werner 1995 On the Construction of Preferred Choices: The Case of Ultimatum Proposals. Discussion Paper, Economic Series No. 59. Berlin: Humboldt University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Güth, Werner, Rolf Schmittberger, and Bernd Schwarze 1982 An Experimental Analysis of Ultimatium Bargaining. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 3:367–388.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hamilton, William D. 1964 Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior. Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1–52.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Henrich, Joe 2000 Does Culture Matter in Economic Behavior? Ultimatum Game Experiments among the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon. American Economic Review 90:973–979.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Henrich, J., and R. Boyd 2001 Why People Punish Defectors: Weak Conformist Transmission Can Stabilize Costly Enforcement of Norms in Cooperative Dilemmas. Journal of Theoretical Biology 208:79–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Henrich J., R. Boyd, S. Bowles, C. Camerer, E. Fehr, H. Gintis, and R. McElreath 2001 In Search of Homo economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies. American Economic Review 91:73–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hoffman, Elisabeth, Kevin McCabe, and Vernon Smith 1996 On Expectations and Monetary Stakes in Ultimatum Games. International Journal of Game Theory 25:289–301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Levine, D. 1998 Modeling Altruism and Spitefulness in Experiments. Review of Economic Dynamics 1:593–622.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McCabe, Kevin A., Stephen J. Rassenti, and Vernon L. Smith 1998 Reciprocity, Trust, and Payoff Privacy in Extensive Form Bargaining. Games and Economic Behavior 24:10–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McCabe, K. A., Mary L. Rigdon, and V. L. Smith 2000 Positive Reciprocity and Intentions in Trust Games. Unpublished ms., University of Arizona, Tucson. Copy in the authors’ possession.

  • Nowak, Martin, and Karl Sigmund 1998 Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity by Image Scoring. Nature 393:573–577.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rabin, Matthew 1993 Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics. American Economic Review 83:1281–1302.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roth, Alvin E. 1995 Bargaining Experiments. In Handbook of Experimental Economics, J. Kagel and A. Roth, eds. Pp. 253–348. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roth, Alvin E., Vesna Prasnikar, Masahiro Okuno-Fujiwara, and Shmuel Zamir 1991 Bargaining and Market Behavior in Jerusalem, Ljubljana, Pittsburgh, and Tokyo: An Experimental Study. American Economic Review 81:1068–1095.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sethi, R., and E. Somananthan 1996 The Evolution of Social Norms in Common Property Resource Use. American Economic Review 86:766–788.

    Google Scholar 

  • 2001a Understanding Reciprocity. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, forthcoming.

  • 2001b Preference Evolution and Reciprocity. Journal of Economic Theory 97:273–297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Slonim, Robert, and Alvin E. Roth 1998 Financial Incentives and Learning in Ultimatum and Market Games: An Experiment in the Slovak Republic. Econometrica 65:569–596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sober, Elliott, and David Sloan Wilson 1998 Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Soltis, Joseph, Robert Boyd, and Peter Richerson 1995 Can Group-Functional Behaviors Evolve by Cultural Group Selection? An Empirical Test. Current Anthropology 36:473–495.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Trivers, R. L. 1971 The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zahavi, Amotz, and Avishay Zahavi 1997 The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ernst Fehr.

Additional information

This paper is part of a research project on strong reciprocity financed by the Network on Economic Environments and the Evolution of Individual Preferences and Social Norms of the MacArthur Foundation.

Ernst Fehr is a professor of economics at the University of Zürich in Switzerland. He is on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Games and Economic Behavior, the European Economic Review, the Journal of Socio-Economics, and Experimental Economics. Fehr studies the interplay among social preferences, social norms, and strategic interactions.

Urs Fischbacher has a position at the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich. He received his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Zurich. His research focuses on social preferences, the economics of social interactions, and game theoretic models of strong reciprocity.

Simon Gächter is a professor of economics at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. His primary research is on problems of incentive systems, contract enforcement, voluntary cooperation, and social norms.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Fehr, E., Fischbacher, U. & Gächter, S. Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms. Hum Nat 13, 1–25 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-002-1012-7

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-002-1012-7

Key words

  • Evolution
  • Game theory
  • Human cooperation
  • Punishment
  • Social norms
  • Strong reciprocity