The Law of Reciprocity and What Can Go Wrong with It

Unveil the deceptive dynamics of the reciprocity rule. Tune in as we delve into its complexities and potential pitfalls.

Have you ever traded sex for the other person's love and respect? Have you ever believed that you must first offer God your loyalty and faithfulness before you can receive His favour? If so, you have then experienced the perversion of the Law of Reciprocity. In this show, we explore what we mean by the reciprocity rule and we shall see how it can easily go awry with tretcherous consequences. Join me as we explore this fascinating topic.


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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A close friend of mine once asked me for some counselling help which I readily agreed to do. At the end of the session, she offered to pay my going rate at the time.

"Oh, no Sally, I can't take money from my friends," I said, "I'd like to offer this help to you without charge."

"That's very sweet of you," she said, "but it means that I will never be able to ask you for help again because I don't want to sponge off your generosity and kindness."

Sally had a very valid point and she finally agreed to pay a heavily discounted fee. It was the Law of Reciprocity that drove this interaction between us. I was happy to offer my time as a gift but she, rightly so, felt that it would change the dynamics between us, leaving her feeling obligated.

We find a form of reciprocity even in Newton's Laws of motion: for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. If the laws of nature didn't work this way, we would not be able to launch a rocket into space or take a flight on a jet aircraft. But, the Law of Reciprocity we are exploring in this show is neither a law of physics, nor a legal law but a social one and, maybe it's not a law at all but merely a social rule of proper behaviour. Yet it is not found in some cultures of the world. The Law of Reciprocity compels us to concede to someone who has made a concession to us. The rule implies that people should repay in kind, what someone has given them. Cultural anthropologists say that humans survived because our ancestors learned to share goods and services 'in an honoured network of obligation.' We still find this synergistic cooperation in communal tribal living today. It's commonplace, in the rural areas of South Africa, to find communities sharing responsibilities. Some members of the group might care for the children while others hunt for food, till the soil and plants crops for the group. Each member renders a service and receives one in return. In communal living, each member therefore can devote more time and attention to his or her allotted task and the whole group benefits.

In his blog, Ruddy Ortiz, tells a story of him being a good Samaritan late one night when he stopped to help a distressed old woman whose car had broken down on the side of the road. After he had changed the wheel on her car, she, with a sense of indebtedness, offered him some money. He refused to take her money because, to him, it was an altruistic act. The next day, a waitress was clearing a table where an old woman had sat drinking tea. There was money enough to pay for the bill but as she cleared away the serviette, she saw a lot more money and a note from the old lady , which read, "You don't owe me anything, I have been there too. | Somebody once helped me out, the way I'm helping you. | If you really want to pay me back, here is what you do: | Do not let this chain of love end with you." It's such a delightful story.

Ortiz's story also highlights two very different aspects: the one is about altruism and the other is about the principle of Paying It Forward.

Paying it forward, as the old woman had done, is a third-party beneficiary concept that involves doing something good for someone else in response to a good deed done to you. When you pay it forward, however, you don't repay the giver, instead, you do something nice for a third person. The philosophy of Pay It Forward is that through acts of kindness among strangers, we all foster a more caring society. It's a truly noble extension of the Law of Reciprocity.

Altruism on the other hand, is the attitude of caring about others and doing acts that help them, although you do not benefit from doing those acts. Selfishness is the opposite of selflessness and most religions promote altruistic attitudes. However, altruism is different from reciprocity in that it has no predicated idea of building relationships because it has no vested interests. It is about doing acts of kindness for others without expecting or needing anything in return. This is what Ortiz had done when he stopped to help the stranded old lady.

All the examples we have looked at so far, are examples of positive reciprocity. It occurs when an action committed by one individual, which has a positive effect on another, is returned with an action that has an approximately equal positive effect. Offering someone a biscuit, doesn't mean that he or she must offer something of equal value in return, that would constitute a transaction between the two of them, like paying for a biscuit you ordered, and this is very different from a casual social interaction between people. In our social context, a simple token of gratitude like, 'thank you,' is all that it takes to reciprocate positively and to conclude the interaction politely.

But, this social rule of reciprocity doesn't only work in a positive way, it also works negatively too. Negative reciprocity occurs when an action that has a negative effect on someone is returned with an action that has an approximately equal negative effect. Spite, meanness, coercion, manipulation and other acts of malice are examples of negative reciprocity. Unlike positive reciprocity which creates social bonds, negative reciprocity divides. Negative reciprocity is commonplace in dysfunctional relationships where partners lock themselves into cycles of tit-for-tat or an-eye-for-an-eye punishment.

For altruism to be sincere, we have to be very careful not to let ego undermine it in subtle ways. In all altruistic acts, something does flow back to the giver, not from the beneficiary but from the giver back to him- or herself. An altruistic person may gain higher self-esteem and self-respect because of their altruism. Being altruistic makes them feel good. Self-gratification and good feelings are the rewards that come back to a person doing altruistic acts and you need to be careful not to let the ego narcissistically wallow in these rewards. Altruism however, also has other pitfalls, especially in a world where there is so much suffering. Every time a needy person is in the right place at the right time he or she will take advantage and easily exploit empathic individuals. Eventually, some of these compassionate individuals may soon suffer from compassion fatigue, "It's all too much and I can't do it anymore." Altruistic individuals may sometimes find it easier to show acts of kindness to animals instead of humans because animals won't exploit them in the same way humans tend to do.

Reciprocated kindness is not always positive and sincere. Take the Biblical advice, "Give and it'll be given to you." It sounds as if it is promoting the Law of Reciprocity, and indeed it is, but I've seen how some people use this text to make a very different point. They believe that to get anything, you must first give it to others. It implies a form of bartering and some individuals use it to confirm their belief in their indebtedness to God and all creation. For them, they must first give God loyalty and faithfulness and only then will they receive His favour. I personally don't believe that a God of infinite, unconditional love, trades this way. Furthermore, this mistaken interpretation also builds a sense of anticipation. After having performed an act of kindness, they then expect getting something in return, even if it is only gratitude, love or respect. In these cases, the scripture, "Give and it'll be given to you," sounds more like a bartered transaction than social etiquette — I'll shower you with acts of kindness in exchange for your love and respect of me.

I don't believe Jesus meant this scripture this way. We must consider some of his other statements and read this one in context with them, to clarify his line of thinking. Jesus also said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is the spiritual Law of Cause and Effect, also known as the Laws of Karma. Loyalty begets loyalty, virtue begets virtue, honesty begets honesty and love begets love. It's the fundament law of societal growth and development. By taking the lead and setting the parameters governing your social interactions with others, they will generally respond in the same way. It's a case of love and respect out; love and respect back in. Give wherever you go and as you give, you will receive. We have further confirmation of what Jesus meant from another of his sayings, "For whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." Giving and taking is a universal mechanism for the flow of energy between things. The Sun gives solar energy and nature readily takes it, paying it forward with abundant natural diversity and splendour. The Law of Reciprocity, in a spiritual context, is therefore one of altruistic giving, that is unconditional giving with no vested interests and no expectation of reward and being in a receptive state of heartfelt gratitude to whatever might flow back. To a person having this spiritual outlook, it would not matter whether the recipient said, 'thank you' or not. Spiritual altruism is your ability to be holy indifferent to the outcome that flows from your acts of kindness towards others. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, you need to assert a place of non-attachment to the outcome of your deeds. It's completely egoless giving.

By virtue of the rule of reciprocity, people are obligated to repay favours, gifts, invitations, and so on. This sense of future obligation has positive consequences that helps build continuing relationships and exchanges between people. While positive reciprocity is the glue holding society together, if used incorrectly, it can also have profoundly negative consequences. A good example of its misuse is when it becomes a tool to coerce and manipulate others against their will. Advertisers, sales people and politicians are masters of this black art. They know that reciprocity is not only a strong determining factor of human behaviour; it is also a powerful method for getting others to agree to your request. Because the rule of reciprocity has the power to trigger feelings of indebtedness, even when faced with an uninvited favour and irrespective of whether you like the person or not, you will feel obliged to comply.

Once, on a tour through Cairo, a wily man approached me as I walked along the pavement, "I made some Turkish coffee and I thought you'd like to try it," he said, extending his hand which held a tiny beaker filled with aromatic coffee. "Come, come with me," he said, beckoning that I should follow him. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. There, inside his shop, he swapped the tiny beaker for a brass mug and an urn full of delicious, aromatic coffee. In my gut, I knew that it was too good to be true: that a Cairo resident would befriend a passing tourist, and I fully expected him to sell me packets of ground Turkish coffee but no, after I had sipped two mugs of his coffee, he then called his assistant to bring out many of his silk shirts. Realising that I had been had, I stood up, thanked him for his generosity, declined to buy his merchandise and tried to retreat to the safety of the pavement but he wasn't giving up. "I offer you my friendship and my coffee but you give me nothing in return." The inference was that I should reciprocate his kindness by buying his goods but I'm a stubborn person with enough Scottish blood in my veins to stand my ground and, with some concerted effort, left without having bought anything. Having escaped much wiser, I was able to avoid another man less than a block away when he tried to sell me something by shoving a tiny bottle of fragrant oil in my hand, saying, "This is my gift for you from Cairo." I tried to give it back to him but he wouldn't take it so, I set it down on the pavement and walked away.

Robert Cialdini, in his book, Influence and Persuasion, tells his story of a boy who asks him to buy a few expensive circus tickets and, when Cialdini refused, the boy then asked him to buy a low-cost chocolate bar. Cialdini fell for it and bought chocolates he never wanted. But, why? The rule of reciprocity operates in two ways. First, an individual is pressured to reciprocate one concession for another by nature of the rule itself. Second, because the individual who initially concedes can expect to have the other person concede in return. If there were no social pressure to return the concession, the person runs the risk of giving up something and getting nothing in return. Mutual concession is a procedure that can promote compromise in a group so that individuals can refocus their efforts toward achieving a common goal. Reciprocal concessions promote compromise in a group so that the initial and incompatible desires of individuals can be set aside for the benefit of social cooperation. So, if an individual starts off by requesting something large (like the boy selling circus tickets) and you refuse, you feel obligated to consent to their smaller request even though you might not be interested in either of the things they are offering (like Cialdini buying chocolate bars.) This is known as the rejection-then-retreat technique. It involves making an outrageous request that someone will almost certainly turn down, and then make the smaller request that was the favour of interest all along. If done skilfully, the second request is seen as a concession so compliance with the second request is obtained. However, if you are playing around with the Law of Reciprocity in this way, you must proceed with caution. If your first request is so big that it is seen as unreasonable, the door in the face technique proves useless as the concession made after is not perceived as genuine. Those that teach these techniques offer further advice not to confuse the door-in-the-face technique with the foot-in-the-door technique where individuals get a person to agree with a large request by first getting them to agree to a moderate request.

The proverb, 'one hand washes the other' is an expression originally denoting mutual cooperation in a positive sense only, but it now carries the negative connotations of backscratching, cronyism, and logrolling. 'Logrolling' is the term used to describe the giving of gifts to the poor in exchange for votes. It is a political term dating back to the early 19th century, and comes from the lumber camps where a spirit of cooperation existed, 'if you help me roll my logs; I'll help roll yours.' The trading of votes or favours for mutual political gain is a policy of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.' Although many African political groups do it unashamedly, it isn't only endemic to Africa but occurs across the globe in less obvious ways.

The subtlety of sales and marketing and the grossness of politics is something you can learn to avoid. However, I'm far more worried about what goes wrong when you misuse the Law of Reciprocity in a personal way. In my many years as a therapist, I have met hundreds of people who inadvertently trap themselves using a perverted form of the reciprocity rule. Most don't know that they are doing it until it is pointed out to them. Once they realise what they're doing, they see how torturous it can be. Let's backtrack for a moment. The reciprocity rule dictates that if I offer you a biscuit, you will return the favour in some way, like saying, "Thank You." If you are one of those many shy, withdrawn people with low self-esteem, uncertain about life, your place in your community and your standing in the eyes of others, you might seek affirmations from others to bolster your self-image and give you confidence. But here's where you run a risk; it's the snake lying in the grass. If you are dependent on the affirmations of others to fill the inner void that you can't seem to fill by yourself, you could inadvertently begin to barter with them. You enter into unspoken transactions whereby you offer them acts of kindness, in exchange for their gratitude, love and respect for you. The inflow of gratitude, love and respect which you receive from them becomes the foundations upon which you build self-esteem and confidence.

It is commonplace for some gay men to seek frequent sex from many partners. Why? It is often because gay life is a fragile world full of marginalisation, guilt, shame and blame. In terms of the rules of reciprocation, your offering another man sexual favours (your act of kindness towards him), compels him to return the favour. It is something you expect and need from him. Once your bartered trade is done, there is a sense of, "If he finds me attractive and is prepared to have sex with me, I must be good enough." Many wives do the same thing for their husbands. By performing acts of kindness for him, including having sex when they don't want to, they bargain on getting back his love and respect.

This, however, is very dangerous ground and you run the risk of self-esteem implosion if the other person withholds reciprocation or reciprocates in an unexpected, lesser way. How do you think you will you feel, especially if the other person's affirmations of you are vital to your emotional wellbeing, if he or she does not reciprocate in the way you anticipated? You'll probably feel used and abused and that might lead to waves of guilt and shame, all of which will negatively affect your confidence and self-esteem. If you are dependent on someone else's love and respect, you might go to extraordinary lengths to get it from them or anyone else. If your acts of kindness regularly get trashed, it may lead to depression and ideas of suicide or, as in the case of so many others, it could pop out in other ways to numb the pain with things like drugs and alcohol.

So, what's the message we take from this? The rule of reciprocity is an excellent social mechanism that holds society together but it is often misused by others who wish to take advantage of you — and there are plenty of those kinds of characters out there waiting to exploit you. Worst still, when the reciprocity rule is corrupted, it becomes treacherous when you use it as a bargaining tool to get what you want from others. In this case, it is always better to bolster your self-esteem and confidence by learning to take responsibility for your own life. By depending on others for your spiritual and mental wellbeing, you lose control of this aspect of your life because you will never know the others will stop giving you what you need. You should never underestimate the importance of taking full responsibility for your life, learning to find gratitude for the things you do and building a loving, respectful and wholesome relationship with yourself. Of course, you must be wary of narcissistic self-love because your ego will seek it out. Replace egoistic self-love for true, spiritual recognition of your highest, true self. When you learn to give yourself all the love and affirmations you need to find your proper place in society, nobody can stop you, no matter where you are living or with whom you are associating. Try it out for yourself and remember, asking for professional help is never a mistake. Seek this kind of help from a trustworthy source if you don't know how to achieve this goal by yourself.

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