The Norm of Reciprocity

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'The Norm of Reciprocity' The Norm of Reciprocity is a powerful social norm that dictates that we treat others as they have treated us.[1] We should reciprocate in kind the good things done for us, whether it is returning benefits for benefits or concessions for concessions. The norm of reciprocity is often used as a compliance strategy in social influence.[2]


Evolutionary Aspect of Norm of Reciprocity:

Cicero stated, “There is no duty more indispensable than that of a returning a kindness. All men distrust one forgetful of a benefit.” In his book Man in Reciprocity, Becker (1956) uses this quote to show that men have been insisting on the importance of reciprocity for a long time.<re>Becker, Howard. Man in Reciprocity. New York: Prager, 1956, p.1.</ref> Cialdini (2001), in concordance, states that evolutionary selection pressure has probably entrenched the behavior of reciprocity in most social animals.[3] Social equilibrium and cohesion among humans could not exist without the reciprocity of service and return service. All contact among people rests on the schema of giving and returning the equivalence, according to sociologist Simmel (1950).[4] The above information makes a case for the belief that the norm of reciprocity has been crucial to the evolutionary development of mankind.

Norm of Reciprocity as a Compliance Strategy:

Most people instantly feel a sense of obligation after someone treats them kindly. Therefore, we often comply with requests from those who have done us small favors and who have made us concessions even when we do not like these people and even when the initial favor done for us is unsolicited.[5] Whatley, Webster, Smith, and Rhodes (1999) conducted a study which supported the hypothesis that the presence of a favor increases compliance with a request in both public and private conditions.[6] The power and ubiquity of the norm of reciprocity can be used against the unsuspecting to induce compliance. Common techniques are used in advertising and other propaganda that build off of the norm of reciprocity. A small gift (i.e. a perfume sample) is extended with the expectation that the recipient will feel an obligation to reciprocate this kindness in some way (i.e. by buying a bottle of the perfume). There are endless real-life examples of the norm being put into action. For instance, you are at a car dealership browsing for a new car. The salesperson may offer you some free popcorn or beverage. The salesperson has done a kind thing for you, so you in turn feel an obligation to do a kind thing for him, perhaps even buying a car from him. Obviously this is not an equivalent exchange (one gives popcorn, so the other buys a car), but it is still proven to be effective.[7] An example of giving and returning of greater equivalence is free samples in food stores. Customers are exposed to the product and also feel indebted according to the norm of reciprocity. Therefore, they are likely to buy the food product as a gesture of returning the “free sample” favor. In Cialdini’s (2001) article “The Science of Persuasion” he cites the Disabled American Veterans organization as an example of reciprocation. When the organization mails out requests for contributions, the appeal succeeds only about 18 percent of the time. However, when the mailing includes a set of free personalized address labels, the success rate almost doubles, to 35 percent. Cialdini states, “Receiving a gift (the labels) – unsolicited and perhaps even unwanted – convinced significant numbers of potential donors to return the favor. Charitable organizations utilize the norm of reciprocation often to acquire donations,” (p.77).[8]

Norm of Reciprocity Across Cultures:

Gouldner (1960) examined the norm of reciprocity from a cultural perspective. He found that the norm functions differently to some degree across cultures. For example, in the Philippines the compadre system overtly pervades the political, economic, and other institutional spheres. Compadres (i.e., friends) are bound by a norm of reciprocity. If one man pays his compadre's doctor's bill in a time of need, the friend may be obligated to help the former's son to get a government job. Here the tendency to govern all relations by the norm of reciprocity is relatively legitimate, overt, and powerful. However, in the United States such tendencies with the norm are weaker because friendship relations are less institutionalized; there is no “compadre system”. This being said, bureaucracies in the United States still have widespread tendencies towards the norm, albeit less legitimate and overt.[9]

Time Constraints of the Norm of Reciprocity:

One important aspect of the norm of reciprocity that has been supported by various studies is that its effect is relatively short-lived. A group of social psychologists including Burger, Horita, Kinoshita, Roberts, and Vera (1997) conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that the obligation to return favors diminishes as the amount of time between the initial favor and the opportunity to reciprocate increases. In the first experiment participants were either given the opportunity to reciprocate a favor 5 minutes later or one week later. Participants in the 5-minute condition were much more likely to reciprocate than participants in the one-week condition. In the second experiment participants indicated in hypothetical scenarios that they would be less likely to return a favor as the length of time since the favor grew. Burger and the others interpreted the findings from the two experiments to mean that the norm of reciprocity does not mandate an open-ended obligation to return a favor. The social rule seems to only require that we return acts of kindness within a reasonable period of time.[10] This is another important aspect to consider when looking at the norm of reciprocity.

  1. Cialdini, Robert. “The Science of Persuasion.” Scientific American. February 2001, p.76.
  2. Baumeister, Roy F. and Brad J. Bushman. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, 2008, p.449.
  3. Cialdini, p.76
  4. Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Ed. Kurt H. Wolff. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press, 1950, p.387.
  5. Whatley, Mark A, J. Matthew Webster, Richard H. Smith, Adele Rhodes. “The Effect of a Favor on Public and Private Compliance: How Internalized is the Norm of Reciprocity.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21:3, 1999, p.251-259.
  6. Whatley, p.252.
  7. Baumeister, p.450.
  8. Cialdini, p.76-77.
  9. Gouldner, Alvin W. “The Norm of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Statement.” 1960. American Sociological Review 25: 165-170.
  10. Burger, Jerry M., Misa Horita, Lisa Kinoshita, Kris Roberts, Christopher Vera. “Effects on Time on the Norm of Reciprocity.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19:1, 1 March 1997, p.91-100.

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