Reciprocity is a powerful, sometimes unconscious force that drives our behavior. When people do things for us we feel an immediate gut-level urge to reciprocate and do something for them.
In general reciprocity is a good thing. Society is largely held in place by people helping each other out in various ways. If your boss treats you well, you feel motivated to work harder. If you lend your neighbor some salt, they will probably give you some when you run short. If you have a company that makes good products, you get rewarded with purchasing loyalty. If government or leaders improve your quality of life, you vote for them and keep them in power because it’s in your best interest.
However, there’s also a dark side to reciprocity. You can find yourself trying to give too much and respond too immediately to people that you like, which can actually ruin your relationships with them. Unscrupulous people might even use reciprocity in an attempt to manipulate you.
Reciprocity Gone Wild with Loved Ones
When loved ones give us a gift or do something nice for us we often feel the need to reciprocate immediately or get overtaken with feelings of guilt at not being prepared to meet their offering of time, energy, or love with an equal offering of our own.
This often comes up in a relationship when you live together with someone for the first time and your significant other starts cleaning or doing some kind of house chores. Seeing them in action creates an impulsive need for you to immediately begin doing some house chores as well, almost as if you have a sense of guilt if you’re not keeping up with your fair share of the work.
You can let this one go. If you project your life out weeks, months, years, and decades, it just doesn’t make sense for you to leap to action every single time your significant other stirs, gives you a gift, or does something nice for you like give you a massage.
Your significant other isn’t expecting instantaneous reciprocation either. Sure help out with dishes, give a gift when the mood strikes, and let things balance out over time, but it’s not necessary to immediately respond in every situation. Learn to sit back and let your significant other vacuum the floor while you continue watching TV uninterrupted.
Learning to Receive
When someone gives you a gift or does a favor for you, they actually don’t want you to immediately return the gift or favor (unless they are trying to manipulate you). What they really want is to feel good about themselves by basking in your enjoyment of their gift or seeing the success that their favor brings you.
If you immediately try to reciprocate a gift or favor, you actually block people from enjoying your enjoyment of the gift–which is what they really wanted. You even turn it into a negative experience for them because they see you get hurried and flustered.
The first time I went to Japan as a foreign exchange student in high school, I brought gifts for all of my homestay families. I had bought them all something from the Iowa store and wanted to share with them a little bit about where I was from.
However, to my surprise one host family got very flustered by the gift and immediately started rummaging through their stuff looking for something to give me in return. While I appreciated the sentiment, it was completely unnecessary. What would have really made me happy is just letting the gift open the conversation about where I was from and letting that be a starting point for getting to know each other.
When someone gives you a gift, the best way to honor that gift in the moment is to enjoy it and that someone cared enough about you to give it to you. When someone does you a favor, the best way to honor it is by succeeding at whatever it is they are helping you to do. Or my favorite, when your significant other is giving you a massage, the best way to honor it is to relax into it and enjoy it.
Reciprocity and Manipulation
We have all seen this in some form or another. You have likely been approached by someone on the street who offers you a compliment and then tries to sell you something. Yep, they offer the compliment only because they know that you are more likely to buy from them if they do.
Sales and marketing people are particularly attuned to the fact that they can alter your behavior to buy more of their stuff through reciprocation. This is the basis of promotions like free trial offers and free giveaways (for the seminal work on persuasion, see Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion).
However, using reciprocity to manipulate people is not just limited to people trying to get your money. In fact, you may be guilty of it yourself.
Have you ever hoped that offering to buy someone dinner or give them gifts would convince them to go out with you? Have you ever complimented someone hoping to get into their pants? Have you ever thought that if you just give someone your heart and let them be the important person in the relationship that they’d love you more?
You may not have thought of it that way, but when you peel it back these are attempts to manipulate someone into a romantic relationship with you. Not surprisingly, these disingenuine tactics often fail or lead to dysfunctional relationships. They actually chase away the people that you want to be around because they signal low self-esteem and neediness.
While reciprocity is an important glue in many of our social bonds, we need to avoid runaway reciprocity and learn to receive.
If you feel you must immediately give a gift after getting a gift, then let your gift be the enjoyment of the gift that the other person wanted you to have. Don’t keep score and just trust that over time things will balance out.
Also, avoid disingenuine attempts to manipulate others through gifts, favors, and reciprocity. A gift from the heart is always best received.