Why do we feel obligated to return what we have been given from others? Why do we feel that we must accept the kindness of strangers and pay them back?
The answer is a concept called the norm of reciprocity. Reciprocity dictates the way that we accept favors and ultimately give them back. Other factors determine how much and how often people are expected to reciprocate good deeds, but we’ll get into that later. For now, let’s look at a more general definition of reciprocity and why it is recognized as a cultural norm.
What Is the Norm of Reciprocity?
Reciprocity is the idea that we give back what we have been given. In order words, people are obligated to repay people who have done something for us or given something to us. The norm of reciprocity is universal – all cultures follow this norm, or rule, or some extent.
This is obviously a general definition, and it manifests itself in an infinite amount of ways.
What is a Cultural Norm?
Norms are agreed-upon expectations that dictate how a society functions. Not all norms are rules, like the norm of reciprocity. Norms may also take shape in the form of taboos, traditional behaviors, or structures that differentiate “right” from “wrong.”
These norms may not be explicitly stated by parents, teachers, or leaders within the society. But they are understood by all members through related stories, lessons, and traditions.
Who Invented the Norm of Reciprocity?
There was no roundtable discussion in the creation of our society that determined that we should return the favors that we have been given in everyday life. Our laws may reflect the norm of reciprocity, but they did not create them. This is just a natural phenomenon that was identified by psychologists and other people who study people. Robert Cialdini named the norm of reciprocity as one of the principles of persuasion in his most famous books.
Norm of Reciprocity Examples
How many times have you been in this situation? You’re at a bar with two friends, and one of them offers to buy the first round. Without any hesitation, you already know that you are on deck to buy the next one. Your third friend will also be expected to buy a round, even though none of you have communicated about this. This is just the norm.
Here’s another situation. You are behind the bar this time. Customers are coming and going and your tips aren’t that great. So what do you do? You’re extra charming and pour extra-strong drinks, knowing that you’ll get more money from the patrons at the bar. You haven’t explicitly asked for higher tips, but you get them anyway!
This is the norm of reciprocity in action.
Where Do We Learn the Norm of Reciprocity?
Did you ever learn “The Golden Rule” in school? If you haven’t, the rule says, Treat others in the way that you would want to be treated. Although this rule does not explicitly say to pay back people who have given you something, this rule supports the idea that members of society should “level the playing field.”
Take the example from earlier. You probably felt good when your friend offered to buy a round for the table. The Golden Rule says to treat your friend like you would want to be treated. The next chance you get, you feel obligated to buy the round and make your friend feel good, too.
History of Reciprocity in Evolutionary Psychology
Evolutionary psychologists believe that this norm stands the test of time. Cooperation has always been essential to survival. Reciprocity encourages and validates cooperation. If you are able to share your extra food with someone who is starving, they will feel obligated to do the same when the tables are turned. This unspoken agreement keeps both parties alive.
Of course, buying a round of drinks after your friend bought a round will not keep both of you alive. But different forms of reciprocity continue to strengthen the bond between humans and keep that cooperation alive. If your friend stopped buying drinks altogether and expected you to buy everything for them, you probably wouldn’t be friends for much longer, now would you?
Factors That Play Into the Norm of Reciprocity
Sometimes, reciprocity is as simple as buying a drink for someone who bought you a drink. But that’s not always how this rule works. Different factors, including your relationship to someone and the influence of other cultural norms, will also play into the obligations you have a desire to meet and how you “repay” someone.
Generalized vs. Balanced Reciprocity
The relationship you have with another person plays a big role into how and when you give or give back. Let’s say you and your two friends meet up, but you only expect to have one drink. You buy the first round because you want to treat your friends on this particular day. You know that they’ll “pay you back” at some point, but you don’t have to keep a tally of when and how they do.
Although some would label this behavior as altruism, or a desire to be selflessness, the norm of reciprocity may play a part here. This behavior reflects generalized reciprocity. No need to “keep score” because the bond between you and the person you are doing something for already comes with expectations that you will look out for each other.
Balanced reciprocity is more calculated. You and the other person have an expectation of when, and how much, the favor will be returned. This doesn’t just occur when you’re performing good deeds. Maybe you offer to buy your neighbor dinner if they watch your pet while you go away for the weekend. You and your neighbor know that the dinner will be scheduled before or shortly after the weekend. Instead, maybe you offer to watch your neighbor’s pet next month. Both parties know what they have to give and what they are getting out of the exchange.
Other Norms, Including Age and Social Status
Studies show that other cultural norms play a role into expected reciprocity. For example, researchers in 2009 hypothesized that reciprocity “varies depending on the relationship with the exchange counterpart, and their own relational-self orientation.” They looked at participants from two different countries, the United States and China, to test their hypothesis. They were right. The United States and China have two different views about an individual’s role in society. The US is a more individualist society, while China is a more collectivist society. This plays into the obligation one might feel to live up to the norm of reciprocity.
Age and social status may also play into how societies deem what is “fair” repayment of a good deed. In a society where older people are revered and have “earned” their place, they may not be expected to repay favors from younger people in the same way that younger people repay people of their own age. In other societies, social status plays a role. In other societies, gender plays a role.
More Examples of Norms of Reciprocity
Here’s an example where gender and other cultural norms affect reciprocity. Heterosexual dating norms, especially more “old-school” norms, dictate that the man picks up the tab on the first date. The woman may not be expected to pick up the tab on the second date, either. Many would say that repayment is not expected because of pay disparities or other factors woven within the culture’s gender roles. Reciprocity is not relevant in these old-school traditions.
Nowadays, young people may bring reciprocity back into the dating scene. Each person pays for their own dinner. The woman promises to pick up the tab on the second date. Maybe the two get creative: if the woman plans the date or makes the reservation, the man picks up the tab. The man might promise the woman a home-cooked meal if she picks up the tab on the first date. Underneath this idea of being equal is the norm of reciprocity.
The examples I’ve shared have all been positive: buying each other drinks, pet sitting, etc. But positive reciprocity is not the only norm woven into our society. Negative reciprocity may also encourage someone’s behavior. This may take place in the form of manipulation. Let’s say you know that your neighbor is desperately looking for a pet-sitter. It’s an emergency, and they are willing to do anything so that you’ll pet-sit. So, you decide to charge a ridiculous amount of money. You get more out of the deal because the other person involved in the exchange will be willing to “repay” you, big-time.
We see this type of manipulation in sales and other exchanges all the time. Let’s say you are debating buying a new computer. You’re not sure whether to buy when a salesperson comes over and offers to throw in a new charger and set of headphones for free. Now you feel more obligated to make the purchase – the salesperson went out of their way to offer you a favor. But are you really obligated to buy the computer in the first place?
Understanding the norm of reciprocity may help to explain the behavior of other people: salespeople, your date, your friends, strangers on the bus, etc. They might have different expectations for you based on their interpretation of certain cultural norms. The best way to understand what they expect and where they are coming from is to clearly communicate.