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Reciprocity and the tragedies of maintaining and providing the commons

Nature Human Behaviourvolume 1pages650656 (2017) | Download Citation


Social cooperation often requires collectively beneficial but individually costly restraint to maintain a public good1,2,3,4, or it needs costly generosity to create one1,5. Status quo effects6 predict that maintaining a public good is easier than providing a new one. Here, we show experimentally and with simulations that even under identical incentives, low levels of cooperation (the ‘tragedy of the commons’2) are systematically more likely in maintenance than provision. Across three series of experiments, we find that strong and weak positive reciprocity, known to be fundamental tendencies underpinning human cooperation7,8,9,10, are substantially diminished under maintenance compared with provision. As we show in a fourth experiment, the opposite holds for negative reciprocity (‘punishment’). Our findings suggest that incentives to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons’ need to contend with dilemma-specific reciprocity.

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We thank A. Alonso Arechar, B. Beranek, T. Cason, J. Cox, F. Fallucchi, U. Fischbacher, M. García-Vega, R. Hernán-González, D. Houser, L. Molleman, D. van Dolder, T. Weber, O. Weisel and various seminar audiences for helpful comments. B. Beranek provided valuable research assistance. This work was supported by the European Research Council grant ERC-AdG 295707 COOPERATION and the Economic and Social Research Council Network for Integrated Behavioural Sciences (ES/K002201/1). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. School of Economics, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK

    • Simon Gächter
  2. CESifo, 81679, Munich, Germany

    • Simon Gächter
  3. IZA Institute of Labour Economics, 53113, Bonn, Germany

    • Simon Gächter
  4. Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences, University of Cologne, 50923, Cologne, Germany

    • Felix Kölle
  5. Institute for Applied Microeconomics, University of Bonn, 53113, Bonn, Germany

    • Simone Quercia


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S.G., F.K. and S.Q. developed the research ideas and designed the study. F.K. and S.Q. conducted the experiments and analysed data. S.G., F.K. and S.Q. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon Gächter.

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    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References, Supplementary Tables 1-14, Supplementary Figures 1-4.

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