What Is Reciprocity?

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What Is Reciprocity?

Reciprocity is a process of exchanging things with other people in order 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.

The socialization process plays an important role in the development of this 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 persuasion or getting others to adopt certain beliefs or behaviors.

How Do You Know?

Have you ever felt obligated to do something for someone because they first did something for you? The norm of reciprocity is 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, 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

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.

More examples of reciprocity 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

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 are able to accomplish more than they would individually.

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.

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

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 be used to take advantage of reciprocity. The persuaded starts by asking for a very large favor that they know you will reject. They then appear to concede by asking for a much smaller favor, which you might then 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 then feel compelled to return the favor by saying yes to the smaller request.

History of Reciprocity

One seminal experiment showed how powerful reciprocity can be in the real world. In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz conducted an experiment. He 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.

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Article Sources
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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.