On Reciprocation

29 April, 2022 - 5 min read

Act of doing something nice for someone with the expectation that the favor will be returned.

Have you ever been handed a free sample at a local grocery store? These small acts are meant to initiate reciprocation tendency, a tendency to reciprocate the favors and concession. Even if this gift is unwanted, receiving it can still trigger a need to repay the gift, usually in the form of purchasing whatever is being sold. It’s a powerful technique the sales and marketing world utilizes.


In social psychology, reciprocity is a social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model.

On one hand, reciprocity makes it possible to build continuing relationships and exchanges. But on the other reciprocity makes you feel obligated to repay positive actions, such as favors, even if they are unwanted.

Deep analysis

Reciprocation is the act of doing something nice for someone, with the expectation that they will do something nice in return for you. Reciprocity is great a societal level but more complicated at the individual level. Women, in particular, often report on the pressure they feel after receiving expensive gifts or dinners.

One often realizes the power of this tendency when one has to do a reciprocating act even if one does not want to do it. It’s almost like an obligation. For example, you have a higher probability to invite a person to your party even if you dislike the person, but just because he invited you to his party earlier.

Sales people at various organizations are taught to use this tendency, knowingly or unknowingly. Author Robert Cialdini (Ph.D.) explores the mental bias of reciprocation tendency in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He defines reciprocation tendency as the automatic tendency for humans to try to reciprocate in kind what others have done for us. And it’s a powerful force. Cialdini argues that this bias can produce a “yes” response from someone who, under normal circumstances, would certainly refuse.

This trait has created in humans an intense psychological reaction to being in a state of obligation: we hate it. If someone does us a favor, we feel like we owe them, and will often go to great lengths to repay the debt that’s owed as quickly as possible. If someone does us disfavor, we often feel like we need to “get back at them” for the injustice we feel we have suffered.

The key to genuine relationships lies having no expectations. In communal relationships like marriage, friendship, and the parent-child relationship, the pressure of reciprocal theory barely ever plays out. It’s the unconditional willingness to help the other side. But some symmetry seems to be the best to avoid being taken advantage of.

Positive and negative reciprocity

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. 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.

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. 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.

Reciprocal concessions

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.

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.