Can generalised reciprocity get started in a group of strangers? If started, what sustains it over time? These are questions that researchers have grappled with for many years. Our ongoing research helps explain how and why we choose to be generous, even to strangers.
The unique exchange system developed by Humax Networks, know as the Reciprocity Ring, enables requests to be met through the practice of generalised reciprocity. With the Reciprocity Ring, generalised reciprocity evolves without social norms, altruism, or central authority as long as participants have a sense of fairness and information about others in the group. If one knows that generosity will be rewarded (and stinginess punished), it is logical to build a reputation for generosity by helping others.
Why do people help? Why do they become generous? There are a number of reasons…..
Short-term Altruism and Long-term Self-Interest
Reputation building is a reason. The Reciprocity Ring creates a context in which people apply the rule of fairness, rewarding those who are generous and not those who are stingy. The Reciprocity Ring builds a social network that is useful in future exchanges, so that helping now pays off later. These forward-thinking strategies are consistent with research that defines reciprocity as a combination of short-term altruism and long-term self-interest.
Giving or receiving produces positive emotions. Reciprocity Ring participants feel a warm glow after they respond to others’ requests, stimulating them to help others. As one participant put it, “[It] gives a plain good feeling after helping anybody.” Others note a sense of gratitude when they receive help for their requests, which motivates them to help others. Participants say that the Reciprocity Ring is “a positive, self-fulfilling experience.” They are grateful for the help they receive and want to pay it forward. For example, the more responses a participant received between the previous and current log-in events, the more he or she responded in the current log-in period to others’ requests.
Generalised reciprocity produces social solidarity – the feeling of belonging to a group, of being responsible for others in the group. The Reciprocity Ring produces a sense of community. As one said, “I wanted to be a part of, and help grow, the community.” Another said, “The positive experience of making a new friend with a minimal investment became a motivator.”
People bring their personal values with them into a new social setting, and the Reciprocity Ring is not an exception. Some participants are motivated by altruism, others by religious values, still others by a prosocial orientation.
Generalised reciprocity is also a learned behavior. The Reciprocity Ring creates a positive learning environment that helps people realise the benefit of helping one another.
“I fully realised the potential of generalised reciprocity – in that by helping the community as a whole, the entire group would be more inclined to help each other, and that some way, somehow, I may benefit from that general willingness to help.”
Bottom Line – you always get back far more than you give.
Why not talk to us about how the Reciprocity Ring can help you to strategically generate generosity across your organisation or community?
 Based on Wayne Baker and Nathaniel Bulkley, “The Evolution of Pure Generalised Reciprocity.” Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the Academy of Management (August 2009).