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You Owe Me


  • Ulrike Malmendier
  • Klaus M. Schmidt


In business and politics, gifts are often aimed at influencing the recipient at the expense of third parties. In an experimental study, which removes informational and incentive confounds, subjects strongly respond to small gifts even though they understand the gift giver's intention. Our findings question existing models of social preferences. They point to anthropological and sociological theories about gifts creating an obligation to reciprocate. We capture these effects in a simple extension of existing models. We show that common policy responses (disclosure, size limits) may be ineffective, consistent with our model. Financial incentives are effective but can backfire.

Suggested Citation

  • Ulrike Malmendier & Klaus M. Schmidt, 2017. "You Owe Me," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 107(2), pages 493-526, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:aecrev:v:107:y:2017:i:2:p:493-526 Note: DOI: 10.1257/aer.20140890

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Gary Charness & Matthew Rabin, 2002. "Understanding Social Preferences with Simple Tests," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 117(3), pages 817-869.
    2. Ruffle, Bradley J., 1999. "Gift giving with emotions," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 39(4), pages 399-420, July.
    3. Ernst Fehr & Georg Kirchsteiger & Arno Riedl, 1993. "Does Fairness Prevent Market Clearing? An Experimental Investigation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 108(2), pages 437-459.
    4. George A. Akerlof, 1982. "Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 97(4), pages 543-569.
    5. A. Colin Cameron & Jonah B. Gelbach & Douglas L. Miller, 2008. "Bootstrap-Based Improvements for Inference with Clustered Errors," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 90(3), pages 414-427, August.
    6. David K. Levine, 1998. "Modeling Altruism and Spitefulness in Experiment," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 1(3), pages 593-622, July.
    7. Rabin, Matthew, 1993. "Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(5), pages 1281-1302, December.
    8. van Dijk, Frans & van Winden, Frans, 1997. "Dynamics of social ties and local public good provision," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 64(3), pages 323-341, June.
    9. Currie, Janet & Lin, Wanchuan & Meng, Juanjuan, 2013. "Social networks and externalities from gift exchange: Evidence from a field experiment," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 107(C), pages 19-30.
    10. Abbink, Klaus, 2004. "Staff rotation as an anti-corruption policy: an experimental study," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 20(4), pages 887-906, November.
    11. James Andreoni & John Miller, 2002. "Giving According to GARP: An Experimental Test of the Consistency of Preferences for Altruism," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(2), pages 737-753, March.
    12. Urs Fischbacher, 2007. "z-Tree: Zurich toolbox for ready-made economic experiments," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 10(2), pages 171-178, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Giuseppe Danese & Luigi Mittone, 2017. "The circulation of worthless objects aids cooperation. An experiment inspired by the Kula," CEEL Working Papers 1703, Cognitive and Experimental Economics Laboratory, Department of Economics, University of Trento, Italia.
    2. Johnsen, Åshild Auglænd, 2017. "Conspiracy against the public - an experiment on collusion," Working Paper Series 03-2017, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, School of Economics and Business.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C92 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Group Behavior
    • D62 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Externalities
    • D64 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Altruism; Philanthropy; Intergenerational Transfers
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification


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