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Altruism, reciprocity and health: A social experiment in restaurant choice


  • Keane, Christopher R.
  • Lafky, Jonathan M.
  • Board, Oliver J.


We used an experimental game to determine whether people imitate restaurant choice, reciprocate food gifts, and thus spread health choices. We randomly paired 138 subjects and recorded their decision to give or keep restaurant vouchers and their choice of restaurant. The majority (83.3%) chose an unhealthy restaurant if their randomly assigned partner chose an unhealthy restaurant. Similarly, 77.8% chose a healthy restaurant if their partner did (p=0.005). The altruistic were more likely to choose a healthy restaurant (p=0.017). In sum, restaurant choice is influenced by reciprocity. A cycle of projection, gifting and reciprocation may explain the social dynamics of food choice. We propose policies that capitalize on people’s tendency towards altruism and imitation.

Suggested Citation

  • Keane, Christopher R. & Lafky, Jonathan M. & Board, Oliver J., 2012. "Altruism, reciprocity and health: A social experiment in restaurant choice," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 37(2), pages 143-150.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jfpoli:v:37:y:2012:i:2:p:143-150
    DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2011.12.002

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Ernst Fehr & Simon Gächter, 2000. "Fairness and Retaliation: The Economics of Reciprocity," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 159-181, Summer.
    2. Baran, Nicole M. & Sapienza, Paola & Zingales, Luigi, 2010. "Can we infer social preferences from the lab? Evidence from the trust game," CEPR Discussion Papers 7634, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    3. Carmichael, H Lorne & MacLeod, W Bentley, 1997. "Gift Giving and the Evolution of Cooperation," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 38(3), pages 485-509, August.
    4. Cox, James C., 2004. "How to identify trust and reciprocity," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 46(2), pages 260-281, February.
    5. Johansson-Stenman, Olof & Mahmud, Minhaj & Martinsson, Peter, 2005. "Does stake size matter in trust games?," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 88(3), pages 365-369, September.
    6. repec:aph:ajpbhl:10.2105/ajph.2005.079418_1 is not listed on IDEAS
    7. Prendergast, Canice & Stole, Lars, 2001. "The non-monetary nature of gifts," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 45(10), pages 1793-1810, December.
    8. Mancino, Lisa & Todd, Jessica & Lin, Biing-Hwan, 2009. "Separating what we eat from where: Measuring the effect of food away from home on diet quality," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 34(6), pages 557-562, December.
    9. Just, David R. & Wansink, Brian & Mancino, Lisa & Guthrie, Joanne F., 2008. "Behavioral Economic Concepts To Encourage Healthy Eating in School Cafeterias: Experiments and Lessons From College Students," Economic Research Report 56489, United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
    10. Chang, Jae Bong & Lusk, Jayson L., 2009. "Fairness and food choice," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 34(6), pages 483-491, December.
    11. James C. Cox & Cary A. Deck, 2005. "On the Nature of Reciprocal Motives," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 43(3), pages 623-635, July.
    12. Ruffle, Bradley J., 1999. "Gift giving with emotions," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 39(4), pages 399-420, July.
    13. Stephen Toler & Brian C. Briggeman & Jayson L. Lusk & Damian C. Adams, 2009. "Fairness, Farmers Markets, and Local Production," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 91(5), pages 1272-1278.
    14. Berg Joyce & Dickhaut John & McCabe Kevin, 1995. "Trust, Reciprocity, and Social History," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 10(1), pages 122-142, July.
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    Cited by:

    1. Leonard, Tammy & McKillop, Caitlin & Carson, Jo Ann & Shuval, Kerem, 2014. "Neighborhood effects on food consumption," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 99-113.


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