The Limits of Reciprocity for Social Cooperation

25 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2003

See all articles by Vincy Fon

Vincy Fon

George Washington University - Department of Economics

Francesco Parisi

University of Minnesota - Law School; University of Bologna

Date Written: 2003


Reciprocity constraints facilitate the achievement of cooperative outcomes in many game-theoretic settings. Yet, in some situations the equilibrium induced by a reciprocity constraint may not be socially optimal. After presenting the case in which reciprocity yields privately and socially optimal levels of cooperation, this paper identifies the conditions under which reciprocity generates inefficient cooperation. Two groups of cases are presented. In one group reciprocity undershoots (i.e., the parties cooperate less than is socially optimal). In the other, more puzzling case, reciprocity constraints overshoot (i.e., the parties are induced to cooperate more than is socially optimal). This paper identifies the conditions for such occurrences. The paper then examines the ability of a reciprocity constraint to induce a reciprocal social optimum, where a social optimum requires equal levels of effort by the two parties, and identifies situations where reciprocity fails to induce such an optimum.

Keywords: Reciprocity, Cooperation, Conditions for Social Optimum

JEL Classification: K10, D70, C7, Z13

Suggested Citation

Fon, Vincy and Parisi, Francesco, The Limits of Reciprocity for Social Cooperation (2003). George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 03-08. Available at SSRN: or

Vincy Fon

George Washington University - Department of Economics ( email )

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Francesco Parisi (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota - Law School ( email )

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Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

University of Bologna ( email )

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40126 Bologna, fc 47100

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