Reciprocity (social psychology)

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In social psychology, reciprocity is a social rule that says we should repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.[1] That is, people give back the kind of treatment they have received from you. By virtue of the rule of reciprocity, we are obligated to repay favors, gifts, invitations, etc. in the future. If someone invites us to their birthday party and buys us a gift, we are expected to do the same when the time for their birthday comes. This sense of future obligation associated with reciprocity makes it possible to build continuing relationships and exchanges. Reciprocal actions of this nature are important to social psychology as they can help explain the maintenance of social norms.

A person who violates the reciprocity norm by accepting without attempting to return the good acts of others is disliked by the social group.[2] Individuals who benefit from the group's resources without contributing any skills, helping, or resources of their own are called free riders. Both individuals and social groups often punish free riders, even when this punishment results in considerable costs to the group.[3] So, it is unsurprising that individuals will go to great lengths to avoid being seen as a moocher, freeloader, or ingrate.[1]

Reciprocal actions differ from altruistic actions in that reciprocal actions only follow from other's initial actions while altruism is the act of social gift giving without hope or expectation of future positive responses.[4][5] Some distinguish between ideal altruism (giving with no expectation of future reward) and reciprocal altruism (giving with expectation of future reward). For more information on this idea, see altruism or altruism (ethics).


Reciprocity dates as far back as the time of Hammurabi (c.a. 1792-1750). Hammurabi's code, a collection of 282 laws and standards, lists crimes and their various punishments as well as guidelines for citizens' conduct.[6] The code was formalized example that demanded the individual act interns of the public interest. The "eye for an eye" principles in which the laws were written mirror the idea of direct reciprocity. For example, if a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death:

Law #196: "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man's bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price."[7]

Reciprocity was also a cornerstone of Ancient Greece. In Homeric Greece, citizens relied on reciprocity as a form of transaction as there was no formal system of government or trade.[8] In Homer's the Iliad, he illustrates several instances of reciprocal transactions in the form of gift giving. For example, in Book VI of the Iliad, Glaucus and Diomedes exchange armor when they discover that their grandfathers were friends.[9] However, there were times when direct reciprocity was not possible, specifically in times of great need when a citizen had nothing to give for repayment. Thus, deferred reciprocity was also prevalent in Greek culture at this time. Deferred reciprocity refers to giving a person gifts or favors with the understanding that they will repay this favor at another time when the initial giver is in great need. This form of reciprocity was used extensively by travelers, particularly in the Odyssey.[8] Odysseus often had to rely on the kindness of human strangers and other mythological creatures to secure resources along his journey.

In the classical Greek polis, large-scale projects such as construction of temples, building of warships and financing of choruses were carried out as gifts to individual donors. In Rome, wealthy elite were linked with their dependents in a cycle of reciprocal gift giving.[10] As these examples suggest, reciprocity enjoyed a cultural prestige among ancient aristocracies for whom it was advantageous.[11]

An adaptive mechanism[edit]

Richard Leakey and Kurt Lewin attribute the very nature of humans to reciprocity. They claim humans survived because our ancestors learned to share goods and services "in an honored network of obligation".[12] Thus, the idea that humans are indebted to repay gifts and favors is a unique aspect of human culture. Cultural anthropologists support this idea in what they call the "web of indebtedness" where reciprocity is viewed as an adaptive mechanism to enhance survival.[13] Within this approach, reciprocity creates an interdependent environment where labor is divided so that humans may be more efficient. For example, if one member of the group cares for the children while another member hunts for food for the group, each member has provided a service and received one in return. Each member can devote more time and attention to his or her allotted task and the whole group benefits. This meant that individuals could give away resources without actually giving them away. Through the rule of reciprocity, sophisticated systems of aid and trade were possible bringing immense benefits to the societies that utilized them.[1] Given the benefits of reciprocity at the societal level, it is not surprising that the norm has persisted and dictates our present cognition and behavior.

The power of reciprocity[edit]

Reciprocity is not only a strong determining factor of human behavior; it is a powerful method for gaining one's compliance with a request. The rule of reciprocity has the power to trigger feelings of indebtedness even when faced with an uninvited favor[14] and irrespective of liking the person who executed the favor.[15] In 1971, Dennis Regan tested the strength of these two aspects of reciprocity in a study where participants believed they were in an art appreciation experiment with a partner, Joe, who was really Regan's assistant. During the experiment, Joe would disappear and bring back a soft drink for the participant. After this phase of the experiment was over, Joe would ask the participant to buy raffle tickets from him. The more the participants liked Joe, the more likely they were to buy raffle tickets from him. However, when Joe had given them a soda and thus indebted them to reciprocate, it made no difference whether the participants liked Joe or not, the rule of reciprocity overpowered liking.[15] Thus, individuals who we might not even like have the power to greatly increase our chances of doing them a favor simply by providing us with a small gift or favor prior to their request. Furthermore, we are obliged to receive these gifts and favors which reduces our ability to choose to whom we wish to be indebted.[1]

In 1976, Phillip Kunz demonstrated the automatic nature of reciprocity in an experiment using Christmas cards. In this experiment, Kunz sent out holiday cards with pictures of his family and a brief note to a group of complete strangers. While he expected some reaction, holiday cards came pouring back to him from people he had never met nor heard of him and who expressed no desire to get to know him any better.[16] The majority of these individuals who responded never inquired into Kunz's identity, they were merely responding to his initial gesture with a reciprocal action.

Politics is another area where the power of reciprocity is evident. While politicians often claim autonomy from the feelings of obligation associated with gifts and favors that influence everyone else, they are also susceptible. In the 2002 election, U.S. Congress Representatives who received the most money from special interest groups were over seven times more likely to vote in favor of the group that had contributed the most money to their campaigns.[1]

Positive and negative reciprocity[edit]

Positive reciprocity occurs when an action committed by one individual that has a positive effect on someone else is returned with an action that has an approximately equal positive effect.[17][18] For example, if someone takes care of another person's dog, the person who received this favor should then return this action with another favor such as with a small gift. However, the reciprocated action should be approximately equal to the first action in terms of positive value, otherwise this can result in an uncomfortable social situation.[19] If someone takes care of another person's dog and that person returns the favor by buying that individual a car, the reciprocated gift is inappropriate because it does not equal the initial gesture. Individuals expect actions to be reciprocated by actions that are approximately equal in value.[17]

One example of positive reciprocity is that waitresses who smile broadly receive more tips than waitresses who present a minimal smile.[20] Also, free samples are not merely opportunities to taste a product but rather invitations to engage in the rule of reciprocity. Many people find it difficult to accept the free sample and walk away. Instead, they buy some of the product even when they did not find it that enjoyable.[1]

Negative reciprocity occurs when an action that has a negative effect on someone is returned with an action that has an approximately equal negative effect.[18][21] For example, if an individual commits a violent act against a person, it is expected that person would return with a similar act of violence. If, however, the reaction to the initial negative action is not approximately equal in negative value, this violates the norm of reciprocity and what is prescribed as allowable.[19] Retaliatory aspects i.e. the aspects of trying to get back and cause harm, are known as negative reciprocity. This definition of negative reciprocity is distinct from the way negative reciprocity is defined in other domains. In cultural anthropology, negative reciprocity refers to an attempt to get something for nothing.[22] It is often referred to as "bartering" or "haggling" (see reciprocity (cultural anthropology) for more information).

Reciprocal concessions[edit]

There are more subtle ways of initiating the reciprocity rule than merely doing something nice for someone so you may expect something in return. One form of this more subtle form of reciprocity is the idea of reciprocal concessions in which the requester lowers his/her initial request, making the respondent more likely to agree to a second request. Under the rule of reciprocity, we are obligated to concede to someone who has made a concession to us.[1] That is, if an individual starts off by requesting something large and you refuse, you feel obligated to consent to their smaller request even though you might not be interested in either of the things they are offering. Robert Cialdini illustrates an example of this phenomenon by telling a story of a boy who asks him to buy five-dollar circus tickets and, when Cialdini refuses, asks him to buy some one dollar chocolate bars. Cialdini feels obligated to return the favor and consents to buying some of the chocolate bars.[1]

The rule of reciprocity operates in reciprocal concessions in two ways. First, an individual is pressured to reciprocate one concession for another by nature of the rule itself. Second, because the individual who initially concedes can expect to have the other person concede in return, this person is free to make the concession in the first place. If there were no social pressure to return the concession, an individual runs the risk of giving up something and getting nothing in return. Mutual concession is a procedure that can promote compromise in a group so that individuals can refocus their efforts toward achieving a common goal. Reciprocal concessions promote compromise in a group so that the initial and incompatible desires of individuals can be set aside for the benefit of social cooperation.[1]

The door in the face technique[edit]

The door in the face technique, otherwise known as the rejection-then-retreat technique, involves making an outrageous request that someone will almost certainly turn down, and then make the smaller request that was the favor of interest all along. If done skillfully, the second request is seen as a concession so compliance with the second request is obtained.[23][24][25] However, one most proceed with caution when using this technique. If the first request is so big that it is seen as unreasonable, the door in the face technique proves useless as the concession made after is not perceived as genuine.[26] The door in the face technique is not to be confused with the foot in the door technique where individuals getting a person to agree with a large request by first getting them to agree to a moderate request.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Cialdini, Robert (2006). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Harper Business; Revised Edition. ISBN 006124189X. 
  2. ^ Wedekind, Claus; Milinski, Manfred (2000-05-05). "Cooperation Through Image Scoring in Humans". Science 288 (5467): 850–852. doi:10.1126/science.288.5467.850. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 10797005. 
  3. ^ Carpenter, Jeffrey P. (2007-07-01). "Punishing free-riders: How group size affects mutual monitoring and the provision of public goods". Games and Economic Behavior 60 (1): 31–51. doi:10.1016/j.geb.2006.08.011. 
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  7. ^ "The Code of Hammurabi: Hammurabi's Code of Laws: Paragraphs 100-199". Retrieved 2015-11-18. 
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  9. ^ Homer (1990). The Iliad. (B. Knox, Ed. R. Fagles, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin Classics. 
  10. ^ Saller, Richard P. (2002-05-09). Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521893923. 
  11. ^ Coffee, Neil (2013-01-01). Reciprocity. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. doi:10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah06274/full. ISBN 9781444338386. 
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  14. ^ Paese, Paul W.; Gilin, Debra A. (2000-01-01). "When an Adversary is Caught Telling the Truth: Reciprocal Cooperation Versus Self-Interest in Distributive Bargaining". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26 (1): 79–90. doi:10.1177/0146167200261008. ISSN 0146-1672. 
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  16. ^ Kunz, Phillip R; Woolcott, Michael (1976-09-01). "Season's greetings: From my status to yours". Social Science Research 5 (3): 269–278. doi:10.1016/0049-089X(76)90003-X. 
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  18. ^ a b Caliendo, Marco; Fossen, Frank; Kritikos, Alexander (2012-04-01). "Trust, positive reciprocity, and negative reciprocity: Do these traits impact entrepreneurial dynamics?". Journal of Economic Psychology. Personality and Entrepreneurship 33 (2): 394–409. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2011.01.005. 
  19. ^ a b Chen, Ya-Ru; Chen, Xiao-Ping; Portnoy, Rebecca (2009-01-01). "To whom do positive norm and negative norm of reciprocity apply? Effects of inequitable offer, relationship, and relational-self orientation". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (1): 24–34. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2008.07.024. 
  20. ^ Tidd, Kathi L.; Lockard, Joan S. (2013-11-14). "Monetary significance of the affiliative smile: A case for reciprocal altruism". Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 11 (6): 344–346. doi:10.3758/BF03336849. ISSN 0090-5054. 
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  22. ^ Sahlins, Marshall (1972). Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. p. 195. 
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  26. ^ Schwarzwald, Jospeh; Raz, Moshe; Zvibel, Moshe (1979-12-01). "The Applicability of the Door-in-the Face Technique when Established Behavioral Customs Exist". Journal of Applied Social Psychology 9 (6): 576–586. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1979.tb00817.x. ISSN 1559-1816. 
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