Mechanisms of Generalized Exchange: Towards an Integrated Model

43 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2009 Last revised: 23 Aug 2020

See all articles by Wayne E. Baker

Wayne E. Baker

University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business

Sheen S. Levine

University of Texas at Dallas; Columbia University

Date Written: October 1, 2013


Generalized exchange is a common practice with wide-ranging implications. Yet it remains a puzzle for theories of rational choice, social exchange, and evolutionary biology. Prior investigations focus on mechanisms developed or tested in isolation, and almost all assume that social preferences are homogenous. This article presents and tests an integrated model of generalized exchange that combines strategic reputation building, fairness-based selective-giving, the obligation to pay it forward, and heterogeneous social preferences (values). Using laboratory experiments, we show that each mechanism is robust: each has significant effects even when we include all four mechanisms in the model and control for other factors. However, some mechanisms have more influence than others, and different combinations of mechanisms yield a wide range of generalized exchange. Overall, generalized exchange is a collective result of people who strive to increase their resources, make decisions contingent on the visibility of their actions and on the behavior of others with whom they interact, reciprocate to a system from which they benefited, and behave consistently with their values. These values moderate how people respond to the presence or absence of reputational incentives, as well as the extent to which they reward generous behavior and punish stingy behavior.

Keywords: Exchange, Reciprocity, Experiment, Sociology, Economics, Biology

Suggested Citation

Baker, Wayne E. and Levine, Sheen S., Mechanisms of Generalized Exchange: Towards an Integrated Model (October 1, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Wayne E. Baker

University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business ( email )

701 Tappan Street
Ann Arbor, MI MI 48109
United States
734-764-2306 (Phone)


Sheen S. Levine (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Dallas ( email )

2601 North Floyd Road
Richardson, TX 75083
United States

Columbia University ( email )

3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States

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