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Understanding reciprocity

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The “rule of reciprocation” has to do with the universal tendency in human beings to feel compelled to repay or reciprocate when given a gift, whether it has come in the form of a material object, a kind deed, or an act of generosity.

There is a strong impulse in people from all cultures to repay gifts or favours with a gift of our own to whoever would have been generous towards us. This impulse is usually mostly seen in reciprocation to invitations to parties, Christmas cards, birthday presents, or acts of kindness.

This tendency has survived and has been present throughout human history, because it has survival value for the human species. The noted archaeologist, Richard Leakey, describes the essence of what makes us human as this system of reciprocity. “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honoured network of obligation.” And cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox describe our web of indebtedness as the valuable means that allows for the division of labour exchange of goods and services, and the creation of clusters of interdependencies that bind us together in highly efficient causal units.

In nearly all cultures, the process of socialization teaches us to share, take turns and give back to all who give to us. We are likely to be shamed or ostracized if we don’t integrate the rule of reciprocity into our behaviour.

Most of us learn over time to go to great lengths not to be considered a freeloader or a parasite. The rule is so strongly ingrained in us that we can be vulnerable to having this tendency used against us by others who wish to exploit or take advantage of us in some way. We can be seduced by “free samples” to purchase items that we don’t really want, or we can be manipulated by unscrupulous sales people pretending to give us a “good deal”.

In romantic relationships, we may find ourselves giving out of sense of obligation if our partner has given us more than we feel we have given him or her.

Next edition we will discuss Building Reciprocity

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

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