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  • Jonathan E. Pearl

Reciprocity - One Hand Washes the Other

Updated: Sep 8


The importance of reciprocity as a social phenomenon is an ancient idea. The first recorded ideas of social reciprocity date back to 1750 BC. The Babylonian King Hammurabi’s 282 laws and standards lists crimes and their various punishments and guidelines for citizens' conduct. Hammurabi codified the "eye for an eye" principle for the first time. For example, if a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death. If someone did some wrong that caused another to lose an arm, the perpetrator would have his own arm severed.

Reciprocity was also a cornerstone of ancient Greece. Homer’s Iliad illustrates several instances of reciprocal transactions in the form of gift giving. In classical Greece large-scale infrastructure projects, like temple construction, and the building of warships etc. were normally funded by private citizens – in return for political influence.

In fact, Annette Weiner (1992) argues that the "norm of reciprocity" is fundamental to the development of Western economic theory. The English philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith used the idea of reciprocity to justify a free market without state intervention. Reciprocity was used, on the one hand, to legitimise the idea of a self-regulating market; and to argue how individual vice was transformed into social good on the other.

The psychologists Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1996) attribute the very survival of the human species to reciprocity. They claim humans survived because our ancestors learned to share goods and services "in an honoured network of obligation". The idea that humans are indebted to repay gifts and favours is a unique but ubiquitous aspect of human culture. Many anthropologists support this idea in what they call the "web of indebtedness" where reciprocity is viewed as an adaptive mechanism to enhance survival. They argue that reciprocity creates an interdependent environment where labour is divided so that humans can be more efficient. If one member of the group cares for the children while another member hunts for food, each member has provided a service and received one in return. In this way each member can devote more time and attention to his or her allotted task, and can develop better skills in that particular area. In this way the whole group benefits through the division of labour and specialisation. This also meant that individuals could give away resources without actually giving them away. Through this basic rule of reciprocity, sophisticated systems of aid and trade were possible bringing immense benefits to all societies that used them.

Fukuyama (1986) said: “If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly, they must coexist within certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning…..Law, contract, and economic rationality and prosperity…. must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust…. The latter are not anachronisms in a modern society but rather the sine qua non of the latter’s success”.

Given the benefits of reciprocity at the societal level, it is not surprising that the norm has persisted and heavily influences our everyday behaviour.

In 1976, Phillip Kunz demonstrated the power of reciprocity in an experiment using Christmas cards. In his experiment, Kunz sent out Christmas cards with pictures of his family and a brief note, including his address, to a group of complete strangers. To his surprise Christmas cards came pouring back to him from people who had never met or heard of him, and who expressed no desire to get to know him. The majority of the individuals who responded never inquired into Kunz's identity, or why he had sent them a card, they were merely responding to his unsolicited gesture with a reciprocal action.

Reciprocity is not only a strong determining factor of human behaviour; it is a powerful method for getting others to do our bidding. The notion of reciprocity (as opposed to altruism) triggers feelings of indebtedness even when a gift is uninvited, and irrespective of how we feel about the person giving the favour. There are three main kinds of reciprocity:

  • Generalised reciprocity: includes exchanges between families or friends. There is no expectation of a returned favour as such; instead, people simply do something for another person based on the assumption that the other person would do the same thing for them. This type of reciprocity is closely related to (but is distinct from) altruism. As we all know – even with family – where the favour isn’t reciprocated in some small way, it wears thin pretty quickly.

  • Balanced reciprocity: involves a calculation of the value of the exchange and an expectation that the favour will be returned within a specified time frame. For example, someone might exchange something they have, whether it is a skill or tangible item, for something of perceived equal value.

  • Negative reciprocity: occurs when one party is trying to get more out of the exchange than the other person. Selling water at inflated prices in a heatwave is a good example of negative reciprocity.

These broad types seem very calculated. But reciprocity is at work, in subtle ways, in many small and insignificant everyday human interactions. If you smile at a stranger in the street, or say “good morning” to a street-sweeper you will more often than not receive a smile or a “hello” in return.

One more subtle form of reciprocity is the idea of reciprocal concessions in which a seller lowers his/her initial offer, making the buyer more likely to agree to a second request.

Robert Cialdini, professor of marketing, business and psychology at Stanford University, spent three years working “undercover” including time at a used car dealership. Cialdini in 'Influence: the psychology of persuasion' explains how marketeers use our predisposition to reciprocate to make sales. My favourite example of his was the Hare Krishna devotees offering flowers which, if reluctantly accepted, usually resulted in a donation. The flowers were commonly discarded in airport bins from where they were recovered to be pressed on others. Caldini also tells the story of a boy who tries to sell him some five-dollar circus tickets. When Cialdini refused, the boy asked him to buy some one-dollar chocolate bars at which point Cialdini felt obligated to return the favour and buys some of the chocolate bars.

Impact of Reciprocity

Reciprocity has a few obvious social benefits. Firstly, taking care of others helps the survival of the species. By reciprocating, we ensure that other people receive help when they need it and that we will receive assistance when we need it. Reciprocity also allows people to get things done that they would not be able to do on their own. By working together or exchanging services, people are able to accomplish more than they would individually. It’s a great way to negotiate towards what you want in a contract, or when resolving a dispute.

This quaint stories told by Cialdini are at the other end of the experiences we have all had at numerous sales outlets when renting cars, or buying mobile phones (loyalty-points, GPS, damage-waiver premium exclusion, extra add-on options or accessories, refer-a-friend, free-trial, etc). Many up-sales techniques rely on the reciprocity phenomenon.

Beware: reciprocity is not always a fair exchange. Research (Comello, Myrick, Raphiou 2016) has proven that people are often willing to make disproportionate concessions after someone has done something small for them. A study in reciprocity found that a waitress who gives a single sweet to each dinner guest at the end of a meal leads to an average 3.3.% increase in the tip that she will get from the diners. Giving 2 sweets per patron leads to a 14.1%+ increase in the size of the tip compared to the 'no-sweets' control group. But if the waitress gives 1 sweet, and then (feigning spontaneity) returns to give a 2nd sweet to the diners that will lead to a 23% increase in the average tip given.

Tips to help you

Take a breath - Studies suggest that the natural urge to reciprocate is strongest immediately after the initial exchange (Goyal, Miller 2017). If you can wait, you will probably feel less pressure to return the favour.

Measure the value of the exchange - Think about whether the favour measures up to the expected return. In many cases, the initial gift or favour is much smaller than the expected or requested return favour.

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