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Attribution and reciprocity in a simulated labor market: An experimental investigation


  • Gary Charness


While papers such as Akerlof and Yellen (1990) and Rabin (1993) argue that psychological considerations such as fairness and reciprocity are important in individual decision-making, there is little explicit empirical evidence of reciprocal altruism in economic environments. This paper tests whether attribution of volition in choosing a wage has a significant effect on subsequent costly effort provision. An experiment was conducted in which subjects are first randomly divided into groups of employers and employees. Wages were selected and employees asked to choose an effort level, where increased effort is costly to the employee, but highly beneficial to the employer. The wage-determination process was common knowledge and wages were chosen either by the employer or by an external process. There is evidence for both distributional concerns and reciprocal altruism. The slope of the effort/wage profile is clearly positive in all cases, but is significantly higher when wages are chosen by the employer, offering support for the hypothesis of reciprocity. There are implications for models of utility and a critique of some current models is presented.

Suggested Citation

  • Gary Charness, 1996. "Attribution and reciprocity in a simulated labor market: An experimental investigation," Economics Working Papers 283, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, revised Oct 1997.
  • Handle: RePEc:upf:upfgen:283

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Devroye, Luc, 1982. "Bounds for the uniform deviation of empirical measures," Journal of Multivariate Analysis, Elsevier, vol. 12(1), pages 72-79, March.
    2. Duc Devroye & J. Beirlant & R. Cao & R. Fraiman & P. Hall & M. Jones & Gábor Lugosi & E. Mammen & J. Marron & C. Sánchez-Sellero & J. Uña & F. Udina & L. Devroye, 1997. "Universal smoothing factor selection in density estimation: theory and practice," TEST: An Official Journal of the Spanish Society of Statistics and Operations Research, Springer;Sociedad de Estadística e Investigación Operativa, vol. 6(2), pages 223-320, December.
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    Cited by:

    1. Gary Bolton & Jordi Brandts & Axel Ockenfels, 1998. "Measuring Motivations for the Reciprocal Responses Observed in a Simple Dilemma Game," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 1(3), pages 207-219, December.
    2. Gary Charness & David I. Levine, 2000. "When are Layoffs Acceptable? Evidence from a Quasi-Experiment," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 53(3), pages 381-400, April.
    3. Falk, Armin & Fehr, Ernst & Fischbacher, Urs, 2008. "Testing theories of fairness--Intentions matter," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 62(1), pages 287-303, January.
    4. Ernst Fehr & Simon Gaechter, "undated". "Do Incentive Contracts Crowd out Voluntary Cooperation?," IEW - Working Papers 034, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
    5. Stanca, Luca & Bruni, Luigino & Corazzini, Luca, 2009. "Testing theories of reciprocity: Do motivations matter?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 71(2), pages 233-245, August.
    6. Gary E Bolton & Jordi Brandts & Axel Ockenfels, 2005. "Fair Procedures: Evidence from Games Involving Lotteries," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 115(506), pages 1054-1076, October.
    7. Gary Charness & Matthew Rabin, 1999. "Social preferences: Some simple tests and a new model," Economics Working Papers 441, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, revised Jan 2000.
    8. Gary Bolton & Axel Ockenfels, 2005. "A stress test of fairness measures in models of social utility," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 25(4), pages 957-982, June.
    9. John Kagel & Katherine Wolfe, 2001. "Tests of Fairness Models Based on Equity Considerations in a Three-Person Ultimatum Game," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 4(3), pages 203-219, December.
    10. Gibbons, Robert & Boven, Leaf Van, 2001. "Contingent social utility in the prisoners' dilemma," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 45(1), pages 1-17, May.
    11. Armin Falk & Ernst Fehr & Urs Fischbacher, 2003. "On the Nature of Fair Behavior," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 41(1), pages 20-26, January.
    12. Jordi Brandts & Gary Charnes, "undated". "Retribution In A Cheap-Talk Experiment," UFAE and IAE Working Papers 454.00, Unitat de Fonaments de l'Anàlisi Econòmica (UAB) and Institut d'Anàlisi Econòmica (CSIC).
    13. Gary Bolton, 1998. "Bargaining and Dilemma Games: From Laboratory Data Towards Theoretical Synthesis," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 1(3), pages 257-281, December.
    14. Dufwenberg, Martin & Kirchsteiger, Georg, 2004. "A theory of sequential reciprocity," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 268-298, May.
    15. Luca Stanca, Luigino Bruni, Luca Corazzini, 2007. "Testing Theories of Reciprocity: Does Motivation Matter?," ISLA Working Papers 29, ISLA, Centre for research on Latin American Studies and Transition Economies, Universita' Bocconi, Milano, Italy.
    16. Gary E Bolton & Axel Ockenfels, 1997. "A Theory of Equity, Reciprocity, and Competition," Levine's Working Paper Archive 1889, David K. Levine.
    17. Günther G. Schulze & Björn Frank, 2003. "Deterrence versus intrinsic motivation: Experimental evidence on the determinants of corruptibility," Economics of Governance, Springer, vol. 4(2), pages 143-160, August.
    18. Ernst Fehr & Urs Fischbacher, "undated". "Why Social Preferences Matter - The Impact of Non-Selfish Motives on Competition," IEW - Working Papers 084, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
    19. Jordi Brandts & Gary Charness, 2000. "Do market conditions affect preferences? Evidence from experimental markets with excess supply and excess demand," Economics Working Papers 491, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
    20. Dufwenberg, Martin, 1999. "Reciprocity and Wage Undercutting," Research Papers in Economics 1999:13, Stockholm University, Department of Economics.
    21. Segal, Uzi & Sobel, Joel, 2007. "Tit for tat: Foundations of preferences for reciprocity in strategic settings," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 136(1), pages 197-216, September.
    22. Abigail Barr & Pieter Serneels, 2004. "Wages and Reciprocity in the Workplace," CSAE Working Paper Series 2004-18, Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford.
    23. 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.
    24. Stephane Mahuteau, 2002. "Reciprocal fairness and gift exchange practices in the labor," Labor and Demography 0211004, EconWPA.
    25. Bernd Irlenbusch, 2006. "Are non-binding contracts really not worth the paper?," Managerial and Decision Economics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 27(1), pages 21-40.

    More about this item


    Experiment; fairness; intentionality; productivity; reciprocity; wages; Leex;

    JEL classification:

    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • D21 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Firm Behavior: Theory
    • J30 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - General
    • J38 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Public Policy
    • J41 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Labor Contracts


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