What is the rule of Reciprocity?

Reciprocity is a powerful principle of influence in human society, so commonly used that it’s likely that you abide by the rules of reciprocity several times a day without even noticing it. Put simply, reciprocity means ‘You do something for me and I will do something for you in return.’

Utilised in the right way, reciprocity can be an effective tool that can contribute to mutual benefit, personal and collective advancement, success, and life achievement. However, as with many interpersonal interactions, reciprocity can be used for positive and motivational purposes as well as to manipulate others for personal gain.

It’s likely that you have taken part in the dynamic of reciprocity. Perhaps you have had a door held open for you at the office and in turn, you hold open the following door open for the person who obliged you. Perhaps you have purchased a coffee for a friend who recently invited you for lunch. There are numerous examples of reciprocity in action from simple acts of ‘kindness in return for kindness’ to more complex interactions related to reciprocity in relationships, business interactions, and politics.

Human beings are programmed to engage in cooperative reciprocity, beginning as early as childhood and fine-tuning this skill through adulthood. So where does this innate desire to reciprocate come from? What motivates us to reciprocate?

An evolutionary perspective

In centuries past, when access to essential resources was scarce and human beings relied on mutual cooperation as a source of protection and survival, trading goods (e.g., food, tools, personal skills) was common. The idea was that if you helped someone today, they would help you if you needed something tomorrow.

This exchange meant that people would have a higher chance of survival and thus be able to procreate. Human beings who were better able to reciprocate with one another survived and passed this innate wisdom to their offspring while those who did not do well with reciprocity, perhaps did not survive. This may be why nowadays, human beings continue to demonstrate reciprocity because our ancestors created a reciprocal culture in order to develop and persist.

Manipulation of the rule

Reciprocity can be used for good or evil and for honesty or trickery. The aim of the rule of reciprocity is to create an equal ‘deed to duty’ ratio in that you intend for your duty to be equivalent to the deed that the other person has done for you. The reverse applies that if you perform a good deed for another person, their duty to you in return is equivalent. Below are a few examples that I have observed.

Reciprocity for Good

Every day when I buy a train ticket at the station, I approach the booth and greet the attendant with a phrase like: ‘ Hi. How are you doing?’ and wait for a response. I am demonstrating a genuine interest in acknowledging and greeting the person who is about to assist me with my purchase. I have noted that showing this simple yet meaningful concern, however fleeting, for the ticket teller’s wellbeing improves the speed of the transaction, the courtesy of the attendant, and the rapport between us significantly.

Oftentimes, the teller will also provide me with the time and platform of the next train and has even recommended me an alternative option, saving me half the cost of a ticket, when all I did was show some interest in him and personalising our interaction.

But isn’t it just being polite to greet a person before speaking to them or making a request? And isn’t he just doing his job to treat me with courtesy and perform his job effectively? Yes and no because it just so happens that not all people are polite and considerate. So by my being polite and greeting the attendant, I have greater control over the entire transaction and in getting what I want in a faster and more efficient way. Most of all, it is the conscientious thing to do to greet the attendant; it brightens the day of my server, which makes us both feel good.

Let’s face it, people can choose to be unhelpful if they are having a bad day and if patrons do not take the time to show respect and consideration.

The Dark Side to Reciprocity

If you are an agreeable, open, and genuine person, you may need to be cautious of people (and particularly companies and businesses) who will take advantage of reciprocity.

A common use I have witnessed involved a salesman knocking on doors in residential neighbourhoods and offering vouchers for discounts on pizza. Once the person accepts the (supposed) free voucher, the salesman blasts into a forceful sales pitch. Having already accepted his free gift, the agreeable individual finds it difficult to resist offering some kind of reciprocation – typically in the form of signing up for a service they don’t want!

So powerful is the pressure to abide by this cultural norm that people can be seen to physically avoid taking what they recognise to be a ‘free gift’ with reciprocity attached.

So how can Reciprocity be used online?

The rule of reciprocity works in much the same way online as in person, with a few caveats.

Have you ever seen one of those model pop-up boxes on the Internet offering you 10% off if you provide your email address? This is a classic online use of reciprocity. When you look at the Deed to Duty of this offer – Real money off for a simple email address- It seems like (and maybe is) a good idea. What many people don’t know is that an email address is calculated to be worth $1 per month to people who use them to sell you products or trade your email address to other companies for compensation.

The general rule of giving something for free before asking for something in return works well in person because there is a social convention to adhere to in the moment. However, when we are online, we may not feel the same social pressure. This is not good for those who want to elicit a reciprocal response, but remember – you still have an advantage, as your potential client can come back to your online shop as many times and at anytime they like whereas in person, you may only get one opportunity.


Reciprocity is a powerful tool that has primal roots and because of this, we gravitate towards utilising its influence in every day life. Used for good purposes, reciprocity can be positive for both the Influencer and the Influencee – helping to build mutually beneficial relationships and grease the wheels of social transactions. We must also be intuitively aware of when reciprocity is used to manipulate in a potentially negative or harmful way so that we can protect ourselves fro this influence.