Field study of charitable giving reveals that reciprocity decays over time

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Feb 20;115(8):1766-1771. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1708293115. Epub 2018 Feb 7.


We examine how reciprocity changes over time by studying a large quasiexperiment in the field. Specifically, we analyze administrative data from a university hospital system. The data include information about over 18,000 donation requests made by the hospital system via mail to a set of its former patients in the 4 months after their first hospital visit. We exploit quasiexperimental variation in the timing of solicitation mailings relative to patient hospital visits and find that an extra 30-day delay between the provision of medical care and a donation solicitation decreases the likelihood of a donation by 30%. Our findings have important implications for models of economic behavior, which currently fail to incorporate reciprocity's sensitivity to time. The fact that reciprocal behavior decays rapidly as time passes also suggests the importance of capitalizing quickly on opportunities to benefit from a quid pro quo.

Keywords: behavioral economics; charitable giving; field study; reciprocity; time.