Strong Reciprocity

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All contributions below are from:

Is Equality Passé? Homo reciprocans and the future of egalitarian politics. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Boston Review.




"By "strong reciprocity" we mean a propensity to cooperate and share with others similarly disposed, and a willingness to punish those who violate cooperative and other social norms--even when such sharing and punishing is personally costly. We call a person who acts this way Homo reciprocans. Homo reciprocans cares about the well-being of others and about the processes determining outcomes--whether they are fair, for example, or violate a social norm. He differs in this from the self-regarding and outcome-oriented Homo economicus.

The strong reciprocity of Homo reciprocans goes considerably beyond the outcome-oriented motives that define Homo economicus. We call these self-interested forms of cooperation "weak reciprocity." Examples include market exchange and cooperation enforced by "tit-for-tat" behavior--what biologists call "reciprocal altruism." Such actions are costly to the giver but still self-interested because they involve the expectation of future repayment. Strong reciprocity, like the biologists' concept of altruism, imposes costs on Homo reciprocans without prospect of repayment. Yet unlike the vernacular usage of "altruism," it is neither unconditional nor necessarily motivated by good will towards the recipient.

Strong reciprocity thus allows groups to engage in common practices without the resort to costly and often ineffective hierarchical authority, and thereby vastly increases the repertoire of social experiments capable of diffusing through cultural and genetic competition. The relevant traits may be transmitted genetically and proliferate under the influence of natural selection, or they may be transmitted culturally through learning from elders and age-mates and proliferate because successful groups tend to absorb failing groups or be emulated by them. We think it likely that both genetic and cultural transmission is involved. The 100,000 years in which anatomically modern humans lived primarily in foraging bands constitutes a sufficiently long time period, and a favorable social and physical ecology, for the evolution of the combination of norm enforcement and sharing that we term strong reciprocity." (

2. Joe Brewer:

"A possible solution is “strong reciprocity“, sometimes also known as “altruistic punishment“. Behavioural economists claim to have documented the existence of this emotional instinct to engage in costly punishment of non-cooperators. In anonymous experiments intended to mimic collective action situations, strong reciprocators tend to punish free-riders, even when they are not the direct victims, and even when there is no clear or assured benefit in the future from doing so. [2nd vs 3rd party punishment] “Strong reciprocity” could be the psychological basis of the outrage that one sees in reaction to a social norm violation like, say, queue-jumping.

In the 4-player public goods game (PGG), each player is given some money and the choice to contribute any fraction of the amount (including zero) to a common pool. At the end, the total is multiplied by some factor and then divided equally amongst the players. Players only know about one another’s contributions at the end of each game. Then the game is repeated many times.

The experiment is designed so that the players, collectively, do their best if everyone contributes the maximum amount from the beginning. But an individual player has an incentive to free-ride whilst everyone else contributes. The worst collective outcome is obtained if everyone decides to free-ride.

PGG comes in two versions, with and without punishment. In the punishment version, each player is informed anonymously after each round about everyone else’s contributions and is allowed to punish whom ever they deem a free-loader by deducting from the free-loader’s final take. But the punisher must pay for some fraction of the punishment amount from his own take.

In a version of the game without punishment, repeating the game many times always causes cooperation to tank, because those who initially made high contributions learn about the free riders at the end of each iteration and then lower their subsequent contributions. But in the version of the game with punishment, a high level of cooperation is sustained." (


" One is tempted to consider strong reciprocity a late arrival in social evolution, possibly one whose provenance is to be found in Enlightenment individualism, or later in the era of liberal democratic or socialist societies. But this account does not square with overwhelming evidence of the distant etiology of strong reciprocity. The primatologist Christopher Boehm finds that

"with the advent of anatomically modern humans who continued to live in small groups and had not yet domesticated plants and animals, it is very likely that all human societies practiced egalitarian behavior and that most of the time they did so very successfully. One main conclusion, then, is that intentional leveling linked to an egalitarian ethos is an immediate and probably an extremely widespread cause of human societies' failing to develop authoritative or coercive leadership".

And anthropologist Bruce Knauft adds:

"In all ethnographically known simple societies, cooperative sharing of provisions is extended to mates, offspring, and many others within the band. . . . Archeological evidence suggests that widespread networks facilitating diffuse access to and transfer of resources and information have been pronounced at least since the Upper Paleolithic . . . The strong internalization of a sharing ethic is in many respects the sine qua non of culture in these societies."

Far from being a mere moment in the history of anatomically modern humans, the period described by Knauft and Boehm emerges roughly 100,000 years before the present and extends to the advent and spread of agriculture 12,000 years ago. In short, it spans perhaps 90 percent of the time we have existed on the planet." (


After conducting a thorough survey of research experiments such as the Prisoner's Dilemma, Bowles and Gintis conclude:

"Five generalizations sum up the relevance of these experiments to the problem of designing and sustaining programs to promote economic security and eliminate poverty. First, people exhibit significant levels of generosity, even towards strangers. Second, people share more of what they acquire by chance rather than by personal effort. Third, people contribute to public goods and cooperate in collective endeavors, and consider it unfair to free-ride on the contributions and efforts of others. Fourth, people punish free riders at substantial costs to themselves, even when they cannot reasonably expect future personal gain from doing so." (

See Also