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.
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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.
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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