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PLoS One. 2016 Apr 4;11(4):e0152076. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152076. eCollection 2016.

Indirect Reciprocity; A Field Experiment.

Author information

University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
CREED and Tinbergen Institute, Amsterdam School of Economics, University of Amsterdam, PO Box 15867, 1001, NJ, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Robert Schumann Center for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Via Roccettini 9, I-50014, San Domenico die Fiesole (FI), Italy.


Indirect reciprocity involves cooperative acts towards strangers, either in response to their kindness to third parties (downstream) or after receiving kindness from others oneself (upstream). It is considered to be important for the evolution of cooperative behavior amongst humans. Though it has been widely studied theoretically, the empirical evidence of indirect reciprocity has thus far been limited and based solely on behavior in laboratory experiments. We provide evidence from an online environment where members can repeatedly ask and offer services to each other, free of charge. For the purpose of this study we created several new member profiles, which differ only in terms of their serving history. We then sent out a large number of service requests to different members from all over the world. We observe that a service request is more likely to be rewarded for those with a profile history of offering the service (to third parties) in the past. This provides clear evidence of (downstream) indirect reciprocity. We find no support for upstream indirect reciprocity (in this case, rewarding the service request after having previously received the service from third parties), however. Our evidence of downstream indirect reciprocity cannot be attributed to reputational effects concerning one's trustworthiness as a service user.

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