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How much is a friend worth?: directed altruism and enforced reciprocity in social networks

  • Stephen Leider
  • Markus M. Möbius
  • Tanya Rosenblat
  • Quoc-Anh Do

We conduct field experiments in a large real-world social network to examine why decision-makers treat their friends more generously than strangers. Subjects are asked to divide a surplus between themselves and named partners at varying social distances, but only one of these decisions is implemented. We decompose altruistic preferences into baseline altruism towards strangers, and directed altruism towards friends. In order to separate the motives that are altruistic from the ones that anticipate a future interaction or repayment, we implement an anonymous treatment in which neither player is told at the end of the experiment which decision was selected for payment, and a non-anonymous treatment where both players are told the outcome. Moreover, in order to distinguish between different future interaction channels—including signaling one’s propensity to be generous and enforced reciprocity, where the decision-maker grants the partner a favor because she expects it to be repaid in the future—the experiments include games where transfers both increase and decrease social surplus. We find that decision-makers vary widely in their baseline altruism, but pass at least 50 percent more surplus to friends as opposed to strangers when decision-making is anonymous. Under non-anonymity, transfers to friends increase by an extra 24 percent relative to strangers, but only in games where transfers increase social surplus. This effect increases with the density of the social network structure between both players. Our findings are well explained by enforced reciprocity, but not by signaling or preference-based reciprocity. We also find that partners’ expectations are well attuned to directed altruism, but that they completely ignore the decision-makers’ baseline altruism. Partners with higher baseline altruism have friends with higher baseline altruism and, therefore, are treated better by their friends.

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Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in its series Working Papers with number 07-11.

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Date of creation: 2007
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedbwp:07-11
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  1. James Andreoni & Lise Vesterlund, 2001. "Which Is The Fair Sex? Gender Differences In Altruism," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 116(1), pages 293-312, February.
  2. Chaim Fershtman & Uri Gneezy, 2001. "Discrimination In A Segmented Society: An Experimental Approach," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 116(1), pages 351-377, February.
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  4. Dean Karlan & Markus Mobius & Tanya Rosenblat & Adam Szeidl, 2009. "Trust and Social Collateral," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 124(3), pages 1307-1361, August.
  5. Rabin, Matthew, 1993. "Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(5), pages 1281-1302, December.
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  8. Axel Ockenfels & Gary E. Bolton, 2000. "ERC: A Theory of Equity, Reciprocity, and Competition," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(1), pages 166-193, March.
  9. Charness, Gary & Rabin, Matthew, 2001. "Understanding Social Preferences with Simple Tests," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt4qz9k8vg, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  10. Dufwenberg, M. & Kirchsteiger, G., 1998. "A Theory of Sequential Reciprocity," Discussion Paper 1998-37, Tilburg University, Center for Economic Research.
  11. Fehr, Ernst & Schmidt, Klaus M., 1999. "A theory of fairness, competition, and cooperation," Munich Reprints in Economics 20650, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
  12. Berg Joyce & Dickhaut John & McCabe Kevin, 1995. "Trust, Reciprocity, and Social History," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 10(1), pages 122-142, July.
  13. Brañas Garza, Pablo & Espinosa Alejos, María Paz & Cobo Reyes, Ramón & Jiménez, Natalia & Ponti, Giovanni, 2006. "Altruism in the (Social) Network," DFAEII Working Papers 2006-04, University of the Basque Country - Department of Foundations of Economic Analysis II.
    • Kovarik, Jaromir & Jiménez, Natalia & Ponti, Giovanni & Espinosa Alejos, María Paz & Brañas Garza, Pablo & Cobo Reyes, Ramón, 2009. "Altruism and Social Integration," IKERLANAK 2009-35, Universidad del País Vasco - Departamento de Fundamentos del Análisis Económico I.
  14. Glaeser, Edward Ludwig & Laibson, David I. & Scheinkman, Jose A. & Soutter, Christine L., 2000. "Measuring Trust," Scholarly Articles 4481497, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  15. James Andreoni, 2001. "Giving According to GARP," Theory workshop papers 339, UCLA Department of Economics.
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