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Reciprocity

By Juan Carlos

Definition

A practice of reacting to someone else’s positive or negative action with an action of mutual benefit or harm.

Reciprocity is capable of spreading love and hate in equal measure. Positive actions often receive a similar response, and negative actions yield a hostile one. 

Newton’s Third Law, the action-reaction law, describes reciprocity well: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

For example, someone buys their friend lunch. There’s a strong likelihood that person will return the favor next time. On the other hand, someone angrily shoves another person. That person will most likely push them back.

Why Use It

Humans feel an innate sense of responsibility to repay someone in the future, whether for an invite, gift, favor, etc. When a person or organization does something for another, especially if it’s free, they usually reciprocate.

Utilizing reciprocity to one’s advantage can make someone more likely to comply. For example, if someone is unlikely to purchase a product, forcing that person to feel indebted to you might ultimately make them buy something.

Reciprocity allows for relationships between two parties to thrive and is near-universal. It has myriad applications in daily life as a tool, although many interactions occur innately as a substrate of society.

When to Use It

Newton’s third law works every time in the natural world, but sociologically, we humans are less precise. That should not dissuade folks from initiating a positive action because, more than likely, folks will reciprocate the favor. The long-term value of continually doing so reaps the rewards.

Reciprocity is valuable in most contexts: personal, professional, advertising, propaganda, etc. Trust is the implicit driving force behind the concept and lessens the cost of any transaction.

Folks thrive from receiving others’ help, and one of the best ways to guarantee that necessary support is to assist others in the first place. Some examples of reciprocity are:

  • Lending money with the expectation it will be given back
  • Giving away free content that might convert someone into a new customer
  • Holding a door open for someone and expecting an affirmative response
  • Giving someone a birthday gift and receiving one in return

Biologists postulate that innate behavior is a result of evolution. In that sense, people disposed to reciprocity were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. It might be a reason the concept is fundamental to society today.

How to Use It

Taking a long view on reciprocity is useful as positive actions will compound over time. Even taking action out of self-interest is reciprocity.

One can employ two types of this concept:

  • Direct reciprocity is tit-for-tat. You help someone, and they return the favor.
  • Indirect reciprocity is pay-it-forward. You help as many people as possible and build a reputation for your deeds. Ultimately, people support you in the future.

The need to reciprocate a favor can be an overwhelming urge in people, and it’s possible to compel others to do so by creating those circumstances. For example, a salesperson asks for your time and attention and once given, you feel obligated to provide them with something lest they leave empty-handed. That scenario is devised to elicit a predictable response.

Several factors involve reciprocity:

  • Reject then retreat is a technique where an individual makes a big request of someone else, who most likely rejects the idea, and the individual then presents a much smaller request. The person is much more likely to consent to the smaller request, which was the individual’s aim.
  • Loss aversion is a principle that states folks are more sensitive to avoiding loss than achieving gains. By choosing to notice gains holistically, one can bypass this issue and overcome the fear of doing something for someone.
  • Schadenfreude, where someone feels delighted at another person’s misfortune, can be caused by a need to see them get their comeuppance. In this case, an adverse action taken against someone requires a reciprocal harmful or destructive event to occur to that person.

It’s crucial to use reciprocity to garner support, and conversely, to be aware of this innate behavior so you are less likely to be manipulated.

How to Misuse It

Reciprocity is not altruism. In altruism, a good deed is done without expecting something in return. Sometimes taking positive action will not result in the desired response, but it does not mean it never works and to give up. Instead, recognize that you will have to take actions continually and that some or most of them will bear fruit.

Next Step

Start being the first person to the table, the person who initiates, and trust that people will reciprocate. Recognize that people who don’t give are less likely to receive anything. Folks will surprise you, and giving will lead to more win-win situations over time.

Where it Came From

There are many historical examples of reciprocity. Hammurabi’s Code from 1972 BC noted the famous concept “eye for an eye,” and was often used to condemn negative actions. In 762 BC, Homer’s Iliad portrayed Grecians gift-giving to one another. Later, in the 16th century, folks used the term “Quid pro quo,” which means “something for something.”

Hi, I’m
Juan Carlos

I’m a creator at heart, a filmmaker by instinct, and a polymath who thrives on diversity. My life’s work is about framing: capturing, exploring, and sometimes breaking conventional boundaries to uncover deeper truths.

My Story

From directing award-winning films to leading product innovation at startups, my career spans the creative and the analytical. I’ve authored children’s books under desert skies, each designed to spark curiosity and independent thought in young minds. Whether through technology that simplifies complex issues or through mental models that enhance clarity, I constantly strive to reimagine how we perceive and interact with the world.

In my personal life, I’m a father fascinated by nature and humanity’s marvels. I share this wonder with my children as we explore the world’s beauty together. Every day offers a new frame, reminding us that what we focus on defines our lives’ story.