Negative reciprocity occurs when one person gets more out of an exchange than the other. One individual clearly benefits more and the other gives more. Exchanges can involve favors, goods, services, or more.
In most social relations, there is a norm of reciprocity that stipulates that both parties in an interaction or relationship should benefit equally.
So, when one gives something to another, be it a verbal compliment or a gift, there is an unwritten rule that the other party should give something in return…of equal value.
However, with negative reciprocity, this exchange is unbalanced. The imbalance may be intentional or accidental.
Negative Reciprocity Examples
- Jim always gives a cheap birthday gift to his brother even though his brother always buys something very nice for him.
- Alisa sells her clothes at a huge profit to tourists because they don’t know any better.
- Mitchell is running for governor and points to residents paying a high tax rate but not receiving high-quality public services in return as a reason voters should elect him to office.
- Mr. and Mrs. Williams have noticed that whenever they invite their next-door neighbors over for a backyard BBQ, they never bring any beverages or snacks.
- Kumar let his friend borrow his car while his was being repaired. But his friend returned the car dirty and with a tear in one of the seats.
- Country X allows citizens from Country Y to buy land, but citizens from Country X cannot buy land in Country Y.
- It seems that Janelle likes to borrow Lisa’s clothes, but doesn’t like to lend any of her clothes to anyone.
- Juson is constantly making playlists for his friends, but they never do the same for him.
- Javi has agreed to take Antonio’s late shifts three times over the last month. But when Javi needed a day off to take care of a personal matter, Antonio said he couldn’t take the shift and made up some lame excuse.
- Taxation without representation is a one-sided deal that helped spark the movement for independence between the colonies in North America and Great Britain.
1. Negative Reciprocity In Marriage
One of the beauties of the social sciences is the flexibility of the concepts. For instance, the definition of negative reciprocity in psychology is usually defined as it is above: when one person takes advantage of another in an exchange of goods or services. However, the term is defined differently when studying marital relations.
Burman et al. (1993) loosely define negative reciprocity in marriage as the “tendency to reciprocate one another’s negative behaviors” (p. 29).
The most complete and often cited definition of negative reciprocity as it applies to marriage comes from Gottman (1979):
“If we know that organism Y has given behavior A to organism X, there is a greater probability that organism X will, at some later time, give behavior A to organism Y than if the prior event had not occurred” (p. 63).
These behaviors can include:
“…the interchange of destructive marital behaviors such as complaints, criticisms, and nonverbal expressions of negative affect (e.g., rolling of the eyes) (Salazar, 2015, p. 113).
Eventually, this pattern of exchange often leads to a dissolution of the relationship; in other words, divorce.
2. When Negative Reciprocity Is Seen As Fair
Negative reciprocity defined as one person taking advantage of another would seem the very definition of unfairness. However, as Shaw et al. (2019) point out, this may only be the case in dyadic personal relationships.
In the workplace, there may be situations in which negative reciprocity is actually seen as fair treatment.
In seven studies, the researchers asked participants to evaluate various scenarios involving the distribution of resources among multiple employees (not dyads).
The results offer a different perspective on perceptions of negative reciprocity. Key findings include (p. 27):
- “negative reciprocity was seen as more fair than positive reciprocity”
- “people were more likely to say that they would vote for a candidate who engaged in negative rather than positive reciprocity”
- “[people] believed they would be more satisfied working at a company where a potential supervisor engaged in negative rather than positive reciprocity”
- “[we] found that merit provides the best justification for unequal outcomes”
These results reveal that in some workplace situations, negative reciprocity is accepted and even viewed as justified and appropriate.
As the researchers explain, balanced reciprocity between a manager and an employee can be seen as favoritism or a form of bribery.
3. The Chain Of Unfairness
Being on the short-end of the stick in negative reciprocity can create feelings of anger and hostility. Logically, those feelings will be directed towards the offending agent. However, human beings are not always logical.
In fact, in many situations, those ill feelings may be directed toward a third party that had nothing to do with the original act of unfairness whatsoever.
Strang et al. (2016) refer to this sequence as the “chain of unfairness,” stating that:
“People do not only behave unfairly against the person who treated themselves unfairly, but do also forward this behavior towards uninvolved third persons” (p. 1).
Similarly, Gray et al. (2014) conducted a series of studies which revealed an asymmetry between generalized positive and generalized negative reciprocity:
“True generosity is paid forward less than both greed and equality” (p. 252).
Well, that’s disappointing!
So it seems that just as “pay it forward” can take on a life of its own, negative reciprocity can also spread to others completely unconnected to the original misdeed.
4. Negative Reciprocity And Emotional Regulation
Being treated unfairly (i.e., negative reciprocity) can create an unpleasant emotional experience, even anger and hostility. This can lead to conflicts between friends, spouses, colleagues, and even entire nations.
Strang et al. (2016) postulated that negative emotions are an underlying factor which drives generalized negative reciprocity. Therefore,
“…effective emotion regulation should lead to a decrease in general negative reciprocity” (p. 1).
In their study, over 200 female students at the University of Bonn participated in a simulated Dictator Game that provided them with either a fair or unfair allocation of resources.
Some participants were given an opportunity to write a message to the dictator which they would receive later. Other participants wrote the message, but told the dictator would not receive it.
Afterwards, all participants rated their level of happiness.
Analysis of emotional expressiveness in the messages revealed:
“…a significant correlation between emotion expression and change in happiness ratings… writing a message which was transferred to the dictator who made the unfair allocation successfully regulated emotions.” (p. 3).
5. Stopping Negative Reciprocity
As illustrated in the case study about marriage, negative reciprocity can lead to a vicious cycle of resentment and eventual termination of the relationship. Of course, not all relationships are healthy. There may be circumstances in which dissolving the relationship is best.
However, in cases in which both parties wish to repair a relationship, be it with a spouse, friend, or coworker, there are strategies that can help.
- Identify Triggers: Everyone has something that sets them off. It is important to identify what triggers you. So, start by being more observant of your own reactions. Next time someone presses your button, make a mental note of what triggered that feeling. Once you are aware of those triggers, you can move on to the next step.
- Break the Cycle: Next time you feel triggered, take a pause. Remove the impulsiveness from the situation by simply not responding. Sometimes responding reinforces the other person’s need for attention. Instead, take a deep breath, withdraw from the situation, and go do something that is calming, uplifting, or just makes you feel better.
Types of Reciprocity
Other types of reciprocity include positive, generalized, and balanced:
- Generalized reciprocity is when one party gives something to another, but there is no expectation of an immediate return favor, but some benefit may come in the future. This type of reciprocity usually occurs in families and close social circles. It can be considered the most altruistic form of reciprocity.
- Balanced reciprocity is when both parties exchange something of more or less equal value. Each party’s contribution is carefully assessed. Although both parties are expected to participate, the timeframe is flexible.
Here is a table of differences:
|Negative Reciprocity||A form of exchange where one person gets more out of an exchange than the other. One individual clearly benefits more and the other gives more.||Jim always gives a cheap birthday gift to his brother even though his brother always buys something very nice for him.|
|Positive Reciprocity||A form of exchange where one party gives something to another with the expectation of receiving something of roughly equal value in return.||Giving a friend a gift and expecting them to give you a gift of similar value in the future. Positive reciprocity can be balanced or generalized.|
|Balanced Reciprocity||A form of exchange where there is an expectation of immediate or specific repayment of roughly equal value.||When a person works in the gig economy, they offer their services for a rate they think is fair. The people who hire them agree to the rate, get the work done, and pay them immediately.|
|Generalized Reciprocity||A form of exchange where there is no expectation of immediate or specific repayment, but rather a sense of trust and obligation to reciprocate in the future.||Helping a neighbor move without expecting anything in return, but knowing that they will likely help you when you’re in trouble in the future.|
There are two versions of negative reciprocity. One version is defined as when a person receives more than they give. For example, when a person borrows things, but never lends. Or, when a vendor takes advantage of unknowing customers.
There are a lot of examples of this type of negative reciprocity.
Some researchers have defined negative reciprocity as when two people exchange hostile remarks or misdeeds with each other. One person does something to harm another, and then that person returns the favor.
This form of negative reciprocity can do serious damage to a relationship, be it between friends or spouses.
Although usually considered unfair, in the workplace there are situations in which negative reciprocity is viewed more favorably than positive reciprocity.
It is human nature to keep track of the exchange of goods and services. When the exchange is unbalanced, it can lead to severe conflicts at both the individual, corporate, or multinational level.
Burman, B., Margolin, G., & John, R.S. (1993). America’s angriest home videos: Behavioral contingencies observed in home reenactments of marital conflict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 28–39.
Gächter, S., & Herrmann, B. (2009). Reciprocity, culture and human cooperation: previous insights and a new cross-cultural experiment. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1518), 791-806.
Gottman, J. M. (1979). Marital interaction: Experimental investigations. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Gray, K., Ward, A. F., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Paying it forward: Generalized reciprocity and the limits of generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 247.
Salazar, L. R. (2015). The negative reciprocity process in marital relationships: A literature review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 24, 113-119.
Shaw, A., Barakzai, A. and Keysar, B. (2019), When and why people evaluate negative reciprocity as more fair than positive reciprocity. Cognitive Science, 43, e12773. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12773
Strang, S., Grote, X., Kuss, K., Park, W. Q., & Weber, B. (2016). Generalized negative reciprocity in the Dictator Game – How to interrupt the chain of unfairness. Scientific Reports, 6, 22316. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep22316