Reciprocity or Self-Interest? Leveraging Digital Social Connections for Healthy Behavior
58 Pages Posted: 11 May 2018 Last revised: 5 Apr 2019
Date Written: April 3, 2019
We examine the role of reciprocity enabled by digital social platforms for offline healthy behavior. Although reciprocity is a fundamental aspect of human psychology, its application in promoting healthy behavior has been quite limited. We conduct a large randomized field experiment with over 1,700 pairs of users on a mobile social network platform. Individuals in the reciprocity treatment group receive a gift from their friends and are asked to return this favor by participating in a running challenge. Their performance is compared to the self-interest incentives which are widely used in practice. We find that on average, reciprocity outperforms self-interest in motivating individuals to exercise more. Furthermore, our results reveal that the magnitude of the reciprocity effect is contingent on the social closeness between senders and receivers. Interestingly, social closeness has an inverted U-shaped influence on the reciprocity effect. The effect is strongest when closeness is moderate, and wanes when closeness is either too strong or too weak. Compared to the widely used self-interest based financial incentives, our findings offer a potentially more powerful avenue for mechanism design in promoting healthy behavior. This mechanism can be implemented cost-effectively with improved precision using today’s ubiquitous digital social connections and wearable devices.
Keywords: Reciprocity, Self-Interest, Healthy Behavior, Financial Incentive, Social Connections, Social Closeness
JEL Classification: I12
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation