Indirect Reciprocity, Resource Sharing, and Environmental Risk: Evidence from Field Experiments in Siberia

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Jul 21, 2016
E. Lance Howe, James J. Murphy, Drew Gerkey, and Colin Thor West



Integrating information from existing research, qualitative ethnographic interviews, and participant observation, we designed a field experiment that introduces idiosyncratic environmental risk and a voluntary sharing decision into a standard public goods game. Conducted with subsistence resource users in rural villages on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Northeast Siberia, we find evidence consistent with a model of indirect reciprocity and local social norms of helping the needy. When participants are allowed to develop reputations in the experiments, as is the case in most small-scale societies, we find that sharing is increasingly directed toward individuals experiencing hardship, good reputations increase aid, and the pooling of resources through voluntary sharing becomes more effective. We also find high levels of voluntary sharing without a strong commitment device; however, this form of cooperation does not increase contributions to the public good. Our results are consistent with previous experiments and theoretical models, suggesting strategic risks tied to rewards, punishments, and reputations are important. However, unlike studies that focus solely on strategic risks, we find the effects of rewards, punishments, and reputations are altered by the presence of environmental factors. Unexpected changes in resource abundance increase interdependence and may alter the costs and benefits of cooperation, relative to defection. We suggest environmental factors that increase interdependence are critically important to consider when developing and testing theories of cooperation.
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