What Is Reciprocity?

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Reciprocity is a process of exchanging things with other people to gain a mutual benefit. The norm of reciprocity (sometimes referred to as the rule of reciprocity) is a social norm where, if someone does something for you, you then feel obligated to return the favor.

If someone talks about something being a two-way street or give-and-take, these are other words and phrases for reciprocity. Learn how reciprocity develops, types of reciprocity, how it's used, and more.

How Reciprocity Develops

The socialization process plays an important role in developing the need to reciprocate. Through experience, children learn to share with others, take turns, and engage in reciprocal actions. Reciprocity plays an important role in the development and continuation of relationships. It also plays an important role in persuading others to adopt certain beliefs or behaviors.

If you have ever felt obligated to do something for someone because they first did something for you, then you were likely responding to the norm of reciprocity. This is an example of just one type of social norm that can have a powerful influence on our behavior.

The reciprocity norm operates on a simple principle: People tend to feel obligated to return favors after people do favors for them.

When your new neighbors bring over a plate of cookies to welcome you to the neighborhood, for instance, you might feel obligated to return the favor when they ask you to take care of their dog while they are on vacation.

Types of Reciprocity

There are three main types of reciprocity:

  • Generalized reciprocity: This form often involves exchanges within families or friends. There is no expectation of a returned favor; 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 related to altruism.
  • Balanced reciprocity: This type involves a calculation of the value of the exchange and an expectation that the favor 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: This form of reciprocity happens when one party involved in the exchange is trying to get more about it than the other person. Selling a much-needed item at an inflated price is one example of negative reciprocity.

Uses for Reciprocity

One area where this norm is commonly employed is in the field of marketing. Marketers utilize a broad range of strategies to convince consumers to make purchases. Some are straightforward such as sales, coupons, and special promotions. Others are far more subtle and make use of principles of human psychology of which many people are not even aware.

Charities also sometimes use reciprocity in an attempt to increase their donations. They might send you free greeting cards or an ink pen, for example, in the hopes that you will reciprocate by donating money to their organization.

Research indicates that, while reciprocity may initially cause people to make a charitable donation, this response reduces over time.

Examples of Reciprocity

Examples of reciprocity in business include:

  • A salesperson giving a freebie to a potential customer, hoping that it will lead them to return the favor by purchasing something
  • A leader offering attention and mentorship to followers in exchange for loyalty
  • Offering customers some valuable information in exchange for signing up for future marketing offers

In relationships, reciprocity often looks like supporting one another in different situations. For example, you might comfort your partner when something doesn't go their way. In return, they will provide comfort and support when you are having a bad day.

Impact of Reciprocity

Reciprocity has a few obvious benefits. For one thing, 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 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 can accomplish more than they would individually.

One seminal experiment showed how powerful reciprocity could be in the real world. In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz mailed out handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of him and his family to approximately 600 randomly selected people. All of the recipients of the cards were complete strangers. Shortly after mailing the cards, responses began trickling in.

Kunz received nearly 200 replies. Why would so many people reply to a complete stranger? This is the rule of reciprocity at work. Since Kunz had done something for them (sent a thoughtful note during the holiday season), many recipients felt obligated to return the favor.

Reciprocity and Persuasion

There are also a number of persuasion techniques that employ the tactic of reciprocity. These strategies are used by people who are trying to persuade you to take action or conform with a request, such as salespeople or politicians.

One of these is known as the "that's-not-all" technique. Let's say you're shopping for a new mobile phone. The salesperson shows your phone and tells you the price, but you're still not quite sure. If the salesperson offers to add a phone case at no additional charge, you might feel like they're doing you a favor, which in turn might make you feel obligated to buy the phone.

Reciprocity in Relationships

Reciprocity is a critical component of a healthy relationship. It involves a mutual exchange of support, emotional investment, care, and love. Reciprocity in a relationship is characterized by:

  • Each partner feeling able to share their needs
  • A willingness to meet the needs of the other person
  • Open and honest communication
  • Interdependence, in which partners support one another while maintaining a clear sense of self
  • Emotional reciprocity, which involves showing empathy and support for another person and the return of that same empathy and support when you need it

It is not a transactional exchange where each person keeps score. Instead, relationship reciprocity focuses on a balanced give and take where people strive to communicate their needs, respond to their partner, and note when each person's needs change.


In relationships, reciprocity involves a mutually beneficial exchange of support that makes each person feel cared for and loved. It is marked by sharing needs, caring for each other, empathy, and interdependence. Because each person provides emotional support that is then reciprocated, both people in the relationship get the care that they need to thrive.

Tips for Navigating Reciprocity

In many cases, the reciprocity norm is actually a good thing. It helps people behave in socially acceptable ways and allows them to engage in a social give-and-take with others. But what should you do if you are trying to overcome the urge to reciprocate, such as trying to avoid the need to purchase an item after receiving a freebie?

Some tips that can help:

  • Give it some time. Experts suggest that the urge to reciprocate is strongest immediately after the initial exchange. If you can wait, you will probably feel less pressure to return the favor.
  • Evaluate the exchange. Think about whether the favor measures up to the expected return. In many cases, the initial gift or favor is much smaller than the requested return favor.

Understanding how the reciprocity norm influences behavior may help you better evaluate persuasive messages and requests.

Potential Pitfalls of Reciprocity

Reciprocity is not always an even exchange, which opens up the potential for imbalance or even abuse. Research has shown that people are often willing to perform a proportionately larger favor after someone has done something small for them.

Engaging in that first reciprocal exchange can make it more likely that you'll respond to other, often bigger, requests in the future. In marketing, this is often called the "foot-in-the-door" technique. Someone starts off by making a small request, and once you agree to it, they then make a much bigger request.

Another approach known as the "door-in-the-face" technique can also take advantage of reciprocity. The persuaded starts by asking for a large favor they know you will reject. They then appear to concede by asking for a much smaller favor, which you might feel obligated to fulfill.

In reality, the small favor was the intent all along, but by appearing to do you a favor by making a smaller request, you feel compelled to return the favor by saying yes to the smaller request.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Chuan A, Kessler JB, Milkman KL. Field study of charitable giving reveals that reciprocity decays over time. PNAS. 2018;115(8):1766-1771. doi:10.1073/pnas.1708293115

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Additional Reading
  • Molm, L. The structure of reciprocity. Social Psychology Quarterly. Published April 2010

  • Zimbardo PG, Leippe MR.The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1991.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.