George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

Perhaps you’re feeling left out because you hear a friend is giving a party and hasn’t invited you. As you think back on your relationship to this friend, you recall all the times you’ve included her in your own invitations and can’t figure out why she’s not reciprocating. It seems like you’ve always gotten along well with her, and share much of your social circles. Why, then, aren’t you considered welcome on this particular occasion?

Reciprocity comes in many forms, in addition to the matter of who gets invited to what. A nice, friendly stranger offers to let you into a crowded checkout line, a friend “likes” your Facebook comment and you do so in return, and a busy boss agrees to write a letter on your behalf for a promotion. You, in turn, feel more inclined to offer help and make positive social media comments as well. Of course, someone has to initiate an action in order for someone else to reciprocate. Conversely, as in the case of the party invitation, sometimes an individual doesn't reciprocate. Assuming that reciprocity’s failure isn’t just a matter of a lost invitation or an honest oversight, the question becomes what might account for who reciprocates and to whom.

Xia Li of the Beijing Institute of Technology and colleagues (2017) investigated social reciprocity, noting that this quality is a “basic tendency that can be found in most human societies throughout history,” nowhere more so than in Chinese culture. Interestingly, when something makes you conscious of your own mortality, as shown in previous research, you’re even more likely to engage in reciprocal behavior. Both self-interest and fairness, they believe, can help explain reciprocity, but there are also situations in which there’s no clear reward, nor does it matter if you’re “fair” or not — the odds are pretty good that you’ll never see that friendly stranger again.

The Beijing team was interested in finding out if people have a general “reciprocity disposition” which makes them more inclined to treat others fairly, regardless of how they’re treated. If you were high on this quality, you’d keep inviting your friend to parties at your house even if you had been snubbed. However, you could also have a reciprocity disposition that works in the other direction: If you feel wronged by someone, you will seek to wrong that person in return. In June 2017, President Donald Trump wrote a set of “mean tweets” about a cable news journalist whom he felt had wronged him. White House staffers justified this action by noting that if you criticize Mr. Trump, you can expect to be hit back 10 times as hard. This would constitute, in other words, a dark side of reciprocity.

To test the impact of reciprocity as a stable quality in a situation designed to measure reciprocity in behavior, Li et al. used an experimental scenario called a “reciprocity game.” This is similar to the well-known “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in which you and a partner decide how to split rewards based on what you think the other person will do. In the reciprocity game used in the Chinese experiment, there was a second part, known as the “Dictator Game,” in which participants learned whether or not their partner had cooperated with them. In other words, the experimenter manipulated the feedback from the first game so that half the participants thought their partner had cooperated, and the other half thought their partner had tried to take advantage of them. Participants then rated their opponents on the quality of kindness. We might assume that being told your opponent chose to cooperate would lead you to rate that person as kinder than if you were told the opponent did not act entirely out of self-interest.

Separately, participants completed a reciprocity questionnaire in which they rated their own reciprocity across different types of situations, using a measure tapping what's known as the “Personal Norm of Reciprocity (PNR).” This measure consists of items such as “If someone does a favor for me, I am ready to return it,” and “I’m ready to do a boring job to return someone’s previous help,” both of which tap positive reciprocity. There’s also a dark side to the PNR, which consists of items measuring negative reciprocity or the desire for revenge: “If someone offends me, I will offend him/her back,” and “If I suffer a serious wrong, I will take my revenge as soon as possible, no matter what the costs.”

You might wonder whether people would, if they thought they’d make more through non-cooperation, act to maximize their own gains. This is in fact what the analysis showed regarding cooperation strategies in that first part of the experiment: Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) chose not to cooperate during the Prisoner’s Dilemma portion of the experiment.

The real test of reciprocity came in the findings for the Dictator Game —the repaying part of the study. People were in fact likely to allocate higher payoffs for the people who had acted kindly toward them and lower amounts if they believed their partner had acted in an unkind manner. Personal dispositions toward reciprocity further influenced the amount people were willing to repay, as did their expectation of cooperation.

From this study, although it was conducted entirely on Chinese college students, it does appear safe to conclude that strangers will establish their own positive and negative score sheets in the way they interact with each other over the course of an experimental session. Imagine how much more complex the score sheet becomes when it stretches back years, if not decades. If you behave according to the positive reciprocity norm, it means that you will keep offering help and support to people regardless of how they’ve acted toward you. If you’re keeping negative scores, you’ll constantly be searching for ways to right the imagined wrongs you’ve received. 

We don’t know from this study whether being high on positive reciprocity makes for a life that is happier and more satisfying. However, given that if people perceive you as a giving person, they’ll be willing to reward you more, it does seem that you’ll get better treatment if you’re nice to others. The Golden Rule seems to have a twist: You can do unto others as you would like to be treated. However, you may be treated even more nicely than you expect if you do show that kindness to your lovers, and even the strangers, in your life.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Li, X., Zhu, P., Yu, Y., Zhang, J., & Zhang, Z. (2017). The effect of reciprocity disposition on giving and repaying reciprocity behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 109201-206. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.01.007

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