Media Briefings


  • Published Date: January 2009

The guiding motto of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ brings neither success nor happiness. That is the conclusion of research by Professors Armin Falk, Thomas Dohmen and colleagues, published in the March 2009 issue of the Economic Journal.

According to their study, someone who is inclined to deal with inequity on a ‘tit-for- tat’ basis tends to experience more unemployment than other people. Vindictive people also have fewer friends and are less satisfied with their lives.

The researchers note that we tend to live by the motto ‘tit-for-tat’. We repay an invitation to dinner with a counter-invitation; when a friend helps us to move house, we help to move his furniture a few months later. On the other hand, we repay meanness in the same coin.

Scientists speak here of reciprocity. A person who repays friendly actions in a like manner is said to behave with positive reciprocity, and one who avenges unfairness acts with negative reciprocity.

Positive and negative reciprocity are interdependent traits: many people incline to positive reciprocity, others more to negative; others, again, incline to both. The researchers wanted to discover what influence these personality traits have on people’s ‘success’ or ‘satisfaction with life’.

To do this, they analysed data from the German Socio-economic Panel, which conducts annual surveys of a representative sample of around 20,000 people in Germany. The responses can be used to discover something about the attitudes to reciprocity of the participants – for example, to what extent they would repay a favour or, on the other hand, an insult on a tit-for-tat basis.

Armin Falk summarises the results:

‘Both positive and negative reciprocity are widespread in Germany.’

The researchers then related these data to other results of the survey. Thomas
Dohmen comments:

‘Positively reciprocal people tend on average to put in more overtime – but only when they find the remuneration fair. As they are very sensitive to incentives, they also tend to earn more money.’

This is in stark contrast to vindictive people. With these people, the equation ‘more money equals more work’ does not always apply. Even pay cuts are not an effective means of bringing negatively reciprocal people back into line. Ultimately the danger arises that they will take revenge – for example, by refusing to work, or by sabotage.

Armin Falk explains:

‘On the basis of theoretical considerations, it would be natural to expect that
negatively reciprocal people are more likely to lose their jobs. This

supposition coincides with our results. Consequently, negatively reciprocal
people experience a significantly higher rate of unemployment’.

And in other respects, too, vindictiveness is not a maxim to be recommended. Anyone who prefers to act according to the Old Testament motto of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ has on average fewer friends – and is clearly less than satisfied with his or her life.


Notes for editors: ‘Homo Reciprocans: Survey Evidence on Behavioural Outcomes’ by Thomas Dohmen, Armin Falk, David Huffman and Uwe Sunde is published in the March 2009 issue of the Economic Journal.

Armin Falk is at the Universität Bonn. Thomas Dohmen is at Maastricht University. David Huffman is at Swarthmore College. Uwe Sunde is at the University of St. Gallen.

For further information: contact Armin Falk on +49 228 73-9240 (email:; Thomas Dohmen on +31 43 388 3647 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768-661095 (email: