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We experimentally demonstrate a causal link between recordkeeping and reciprocal exchange. Recordkeeping improves memory of past interactions in a complex exchange environment, which promotes reputation formation and decision coordination. Economies with recordkeeping exhibit a beneficially altered economic history where the risks of exchanging with strangers are substantially lessened. Our findings are consistent with prior assertions that complex and extensive reciprocity requires sophisticated memory to store information on past transactions. We offer insights on this research by scientifically demonstrating that reciprocity can be facilitated by information storage external to the brain. This is consistent with the archaeological record, which suggests that prehistoric transaction records and the invention of writing for recordkeeping were linked to increased complexity in human interaction.


This article was originally published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, volume 106, issue 4, in 2009. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811967106

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National Academy of Sciences