Reciprocity is a social exchange principle that involves the giving and receiving of benefits or actions between individuals.
It refers to the idea that people tend to respond positively to kind gestures, favors, or gifts by returning the same level of behavior toward others.
For example, imagine your colleague bringing snacks for everyone in the office every Friday afternoon. You appreciate this gesture and thank her. You may then be more inclined to reciprocate by bringing snacks for everyone on a different day or offering some help with her work when she needs it.
This act of kindness creates a mutual obligation to return the favor and strengthens social bonds.
Reciprocity can also affect compliance behavior, such as when businesses offer free samples or trial periods, which customers may feel obliged to reciprocate by purchasing their products.
Definition of Reciprocity
Reciprocity refers to the inclination of individuals to return favors or positive actions when presented with a gesture of kindness.
Trivers (1971) defined reciprocity as:
“…one individual selectively providing helpful acts with another individual that will provide benefits in return” (as cited in Schweinfurth & Call, 2019, p. 285).
According to social psychology, reciprocity is a human behavior that has evolutionary benefits because it can maintain social norms and perceived fairness within a community. Individuals tend to adhere to fairness and equity in interpersonal social exchanges (Sandhu et al., 2015).
To put it simply, there’s something about receiving acts of kindness that evokes a sense of responsibility within us. We feel compelled to reciprocate and repay those who have done good deeds for us, as it goes against our nature to simply receive without giving back (Thielmann & Hilbig, 2015).
Similarly, according to Mahmoodi and colleagues (2018), reciprocity plays an integral role in maintaining social networks, creating emotional bonds between individuals, promoting trustworthiness, and even enhancing cooperative engagement among strangers.
In biological psychology, it is believed that another person’s act of kindness and care creates a positive impression on the brain that releases feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin in reward circuitry, leading us to perceive others positively (Schneiderman et al., 2012).
21 Examples of Reciprocity
- Tipping: In restaurants, it is customary to tip the server; this practice demonstrates the relationship between service and reward. People tip better when they receive excellent service because they feel the server deserves it. The server, in turn, is more inclined to provide excellent service to customers who have tipped generously before.
- Gift-giving: Reciprocity often underlies gift-giving, as people exchange gifts on special occasions like birthdays, weddings, or holidays. Giving a gift triggers a psychological response in the recipient that creates an obligation to reciprocate with another gift or gesture for that person’s birthday, etc.
- Charity donations: People who donate money or time for a charitable cause expect no personal gain but the emotional satisfaction of contributing towards societal well-being and making a difference. However, research shows that donors may be more inclined to contribute in response to past good deeds from a fundraiser or positive social media triggers.
- Favors among friends: Friends often offer help with chores such as babysitting or help moving furniture without charging monetary compensation because they feel like helping them out strengthens their friendship by positively establishing reciprocity.
- Social media engagements: Social media influencers build linkages with followers by offering free downloads on platforms such as Instagram or YouTube. It enhances reciprocity through increased engagement and subsequent brand loyalty- resulting in paid promotions and advertising revenues.
- Job interviews: Many employers use interpersonal favors during job interviews, such as offering coffee or water beforehand, obliging candidates into acceptance, thereby strengthening interviewees feeling of valued and appreciated.
- Door holding: It is common courtesy to hold open doors for someone following behind you while entering/exiting public places. It creates an informal bond tied together by shared human elements essential for nurturing positive relationships.
- Networking functions: Event promoters invite guests who later on become future business patrons and allies. The guests reciprocate by bringing others to their events or hiring the promoter’s services.
- House parties dinner invitations: Hosting dinner parties can be an excellent way of building social relationships since guests are obliged to invite their host for a meal in reciprocation, strengthening the connection as both parties continue to offer hospitality and maintain social links.
- Volunteer work: Volunteers dedicate their time, effort, and sometimes resources for free to help society’s less fortunate through gestures such as cleaning up parks, reading to kids at schools, or even visiting hospitals. These acts cultivate goodwill, often leading to reciprocity where people give back by volunteering or offering donations.
- Professional mentorship: If a person has been mentored toward the beginning of their career, they will often feel an obligation to give back later in their career by becoming a mentor themselves. This cycle of knowledge sharing helps to sustain workplace cultures and gives older and more experienced members of a professional community a strong sense of purpose.
- Business collaborations: Companies forming strategic alliances frequently enjoy mutual benefits. A software company might develop an application for a hardware firm, which then markets the software as part of its package. This symbiotic relationship epitomizes reciprocity.
- Team sports: In teams, people will often give their best performance only when they feel as if their teammates are also giving their best. This culture of high expectations means that everyone feels like they need to reciprocate each other’s effort, and fosters a sense of unity and shared purpose.
- Customer loyalty programs: Customer loyalty plans are designed to promote a sense among customers that they should continue to come back and buy at the store because the store treats them well.
- Shared resource communities: In communities like open-source software development, contributions are freely given in the hope that others will reciprocate by improving upon and sharing their enhancements. This creates a cycle of giving and taking that benefits all members.
- Political alliances: Nations often provide aid or political support to their allies, expecting a similar level of commitment in return. This reciprocity plays a crucial role in maintaining global stability and diplomatic relations.
- Academic peer reviews: Researchers often review others’ work in their field, contributing to the knowledge pool. In return, they expect their work to be peer-reviewed, allowing them to refine their research and advance their discipline.
- Blood donation: Donors give blood expecting nothing in return, but when they or a loved one is in need, they hope others will do the same. Simultaneously, a person who has received a blood donation in the past may feel a moral obligation to reciprocate and give blood regularly for the rest of their life.
- Parent-child relationships: Parents care for their children expecting them to reciprocate their love and, in some cultures, care for them in their old age. This reciprocity may be implicit in most families, but still, the children feel that sense of obligation to their parent since the parent gave them so much love and care during their upbringing.
- Neighborly gestures: Small acts of kindness, such as mowing a neighbor’s lawn or offering a cup of sugar, can foster a reciprocal relationship within a community, strengthening bonds and promoting collective well-being. This can be of mutual benefit, because looking out for each other makes everyone feel more safe and secure.
- Bartering goods and services: In various cultures and economies, bartering involves a direct exchange of goods or services without using money. The reciprocal nature of bartering promotes fairness and mutual benefit.
- Environmental stewardship: Individuals who enjoy the benefits of a clean and healthy environment often feel obliged to give back by adopting eco-friendly habits and participating in conservation efforts. This reciprocity helps to preserve our shared environment for future generations.
Types of Reciprocity
Reciprocity can be divided into three main types: generalized, balanced, and negative reciprocity.
Let’s have a look at each type:
1. Generalized Reciprocity
Generalized reciprocity describes a type of exchange where there is an expectation that one person’s actions will be returned, however, not with any specific expected action. It could be a vague sense that the person will ‘get you back’ at an unspecified time in the future.
The focus of generalized reciprocity is on long-term social relationships instead of immediate return.
For example, suppose someone helps their neighbor fix a leaking roof or mow the grass without being asked to do so and with no expectation of something in return.
In that case, the neighbor may be inclined to reciprocate by doing something else for that same person in the future without any direct initiation or countable reward system (Kolm & Ythier, 2006).
2. Balanced Reciprocity
Balanced reciprocity occurs when exchanges between individuals where there is an ongoing balance system of obligations and benefits (Longenecker, 2009), with the expectation that balance will be maintained overall.
Here, both parties can keep track and hence acknowledge receiving value from each other such as buying lunch for a friend who paid for breakfast earlier.
This creates a cycle that enables individuals to let favors fall in place, balancing each other’s accounts.
3. Negative Reciprocity
Negative reciprocity occurs when an exchange is driven by exploitation or seeks minimal mutual gain, disregarding the perspectives and well-being of others involved (Queisser, 2009).
It is motivated by selfish personal interests, overlooking the importance of long-term social interactions.
Negative reciprocity can be observed in the context of street vendors who engage in dishonest practices. These vendors deceive innocent bystanders by offering fake promotions and failing to deliver the promised products.
They exploit various offers, making it challenging for unsuspecting customers to receive what they actually paid for. As a result, this disrupts the harmony and trust within marketplaces, which in the long term will harm both the trickster and the customer.
Social Value of Reciprocity
Reciprocity is an essential principle in social psychology that plays a vital role in building and maintaining healthy relationships, social networks, and overall well-being.
Here are some reasons why reciprocity is important:
1. Strengthening Social Ties
Reciprocal actions create emotional bonds between individuals leading to long-term trust building. It also fulfills non-material needs within interpersonal relationships (Adloff & Mau, 2006).
Similarly, when individuals feel appreciated through an act of kindness such as gift-giving or job recommendation favoritism, they establish a level of loyalty that leads to continued positive cooperation.
2. Fairness and Positive Socioeconomic Interactions
Everyone desires fairness in interactions. Reciprocation reduces one-sided gains leading to equitable changes among parties involved and an overall sense that fairness has been delivered.
In fact, perceived fairness helps boost social-economic interactions by reducing conflict and increasing satisfaction for all.
3. Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Coexistence
Reciprocation can be crucial in promoting peace-building initiatives by modeling behaviors that foster mutual respect (Adloff & Mau, 2006).
It creates effective mechanisms for conflict resolution because many reciprocal actions are also reconciliatory gestures. For example, providing reparations occurs when you help someone out in order to make up for a bad thing you did that harmed them. This helps to restore perceived justice.
4. Enhancing Morale-Boosting Interpersonal Support
Generosity not only brings joy to others but also triggers surges of dopamine in ourselves. Making others happy through acts of kindness increases serotonin production.
In addition, these positive interactions build essential life-long skills that promote healthier coping mechanisms, enabling individuals to navigate adversities better.
5. Sustainable Societal Mutuality Goals Attainment
Engaging in reciprocal support fosters group cohesion by promoting contributions driven by moral values. This approach reduces the focus on malicious achievement-driven behavior and emphasizes the important of morality in social interactions.
Thus, it transforms faceless competitive mindsets into more intrinsically motivated mindsets rooted in social responsibility and consideration for others.
Pitfalls of Reciprocity
There are, of course, potential negative consequences during interactions based upon reciprocity. These can often arise if reciprocity is not used well, or if it is exploited in a way that leads to unintended results.
Here are some common pitfalls associated with reciprocity:
- Overcommitment: Reciprocity may lead people to overcommit in trying to repay favors, resulting in an imbalance of obligations or future conflicts.
- Manipulation: People may use reciprocity as a manipulation technique, such as offering favors with the expectation of receiving something more significant or leading others to feel obliged to return them even when it is not warranted.
- Exploitation: Unscrupulous people may use this principle for personal gain without intending any necessary repayment creating an imbalanced power relationship.
- Resentment: Recipients who cannot reciprocate under difficult circumstances (e.g., poverty) and become prone to feelings of guilt- potentially leading to negative social emotions towards the giver.
Reciprocity is a psychological principle that significantly shapes our social behavior and builds interpersonal relationships.
It involves exchanging favors, actions, or gifts to initiate mutual positive engagement between individuals, and it reinforces the shared human desire for fairness, equality, and equity.
Through reciprocity, we establish bonds of trust that sustain us through challenging times, fostering collaboration and cooperation among people while promoting the common good over self-interest.
However, we should bear in mind that reciprocity requires patience and commitment because it doesn’t always occur immediately.
Overall, by being cognizant of both the benefits and potential pitfalls of reciprocity highlighted by this article, we can use this timeless tenet to establish healthy social interactions with the people in our communities.
Adloff, F., & Mau, S. (2006). Giving social ties, reciprocity in modern society. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie / Europäisches Archiv Für Soziologie, 47(1), 93–123. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23999564
Kolm, S.-C., & Ythier, J. M. (2006). Handbook of the economics of giving, altruism and reciprocity. Elsevier.
Longenecker, B. W. (2009). Engaging economics: New Testament scenarios and early Christian reception. Eerdmans.
Queisser, D. (2019). Reciprocity in the third millennium. Éditions Slatkine.
Sandhu, S., Arcidiacono, E., Aguglia, E., & Priebe, S. (2015). Reciprocity in therapeutic relationships: A conceptual review. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 24(6), 460–470. https://doi.org/10.1111/inm.12160
Schneiderman, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J. F., & Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(8), 1277–1285. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.12.021
Schweinfurth, M. K., & Call, J. (2019). Reciprocity: Different behavioural strategies, cognitive mechanisms and psychological processes. Learning & Behavior, 47(4), 284–301. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-019-00394-5
Thielmann, I., & Hilbig, B. E. (2015). The traits one can trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(11), 1523–1536. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167215600530