Sara Miller McCune Director, Center For Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, professor, Stanford University; Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies, University of Washington
Reciprocal Altruism

For societies to survive and thrive, some significant proportion of their members must engage in reciprocal altruism. All sorts of animals, including humans, will pay high individual costs to provide benefits for a non-intimate other. Indeed, this kind of altruism plays a critical role in producing cooperative cultures that improve a group’s welfare, survival, and fitness. 

The initial formulation of reciprocal altruism focused on a tit-for-tat strategy in which the altruist expected a cooperative response from the recipient. Game theorists posit an almost immediate return (albeit iterated), but evolutionary biologists, economists, anthropologists, and psychologists tend to be more concerned with returns over time to the individual or, more interestingly, to the collective.  

Evidence is strong that for many human reciprocal altruists the anticipated repayment is not necessarily for the person who makes the initial sacrifice or even for their family members. By creating a culture of cooperation, the expectation is that sufficient others will engage in altruistic acts as needed to ensure the well being of those within the boundaries of the given community. The return to such long-sighted reciprocal altruists is the establishment of norms of cooperation that endure beyond the lifetime of any particular altruist. Gift-exchange relationships documented by anthropologists are mechanisms for redistribution to ensure group stability; so are institutionalized philanthropy and welfare systems in modern economies.   

At issue is how giving norms evolve and help preserve a group. Reciprocal altruism—be it with immediate or long-term expectations—offers a model of appropriate behavior, but, equally importantly, it sets in motion a process of reciprocity that defines expectations of those in the society. If the norms become strong enough, those who deviate will be subject to punishment—internal in the form of shame and external in the form of penalties ranging from verbal reprimand, torture or confinement, and banishment from the group.    

Reciprocal altruism helps us understand the creation of ethics and norms in a society, but we still need to more clearly understand what initiates and sustains altruistic cooperation over time. Why would anyone be altruistic in the first place? Without some individually based motivations, far too few would engage in cooperative action. It may be that a few highly moralistic individuals are key; once there is a first mover willing to pay the price, others will follow as the advantages become clearer or the costs they must bear are lowered.  

Other accounts suggest that giving can be motived by a reasonable expectation of reciprocity or rewards over time. Other factors also support reciprocal altruism, such as the positive emotions that can surround the act of giving, the lesson Scrooge learned. Most likely, there is a combination of complementary motivations: Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were undoubtedly driven by moral principles and outrage at the injustices they perceived, but they also gained adulation and fame. Less famous examples abound of sacrifice, charity, and costly cooperation—some demanding recognition, some not.     

For long-sighted reciprocal altruism to be sustained in a society ultimately requires an enduring framework for establishing principles and ethics. Reciprocal altruism is reinforced by a culture that has norms and rules for behavior, makes punishment legitimate for deviations, and teaches its members its particular ethics of responsibility and fairness. If the organizational framework of the culture designs appropriate incentives and evokes relevant motivations, it will ensure a sufficient number of reciprocal altruists for survival of the culture and its ethics.  

Long-sighted reciprocal altruism is key to human cooperation and to the development of societies in which people take care of each other. However, there is huge variation in who counts in the relevant population and what they should receive as gifts and when. The existence of reciprocal altruism does not arbitrate these questions. Indeed, the expectation of reciprocity can both reduce and even undermine altruism. It may limit gift giving only to the in-group where such obligations exist. Perhaps if we stay only in the realm of group fitness (or, for that matter, tribalism), such behavior might still be considered ethical. But if we are trying to build an enduring and encompassing ethical society, tight boundaries around deserving beneficiaries of altruistic acts becomes problematic. If we accept such boundaries, we are quickly in the realm of wars and terrorism in which some populations are considered non-human or, at least, non-deserving of beneficence.   

The concept of reciprocal altruism allows us to explore what it means to be human and to live in a humane society. Recognition of the significance of reciprocal altruism for the survival of a culture makes us aware of how dependent we are on each other. Sacrifices and giving, the stuff of altruism, are necessary ingredients for human cooperation, which itself is the basis of effective and thriving societies.