The Law of Psychological Reciprocity

The law of psychological reciprocity is about giving to receive, helping to be helped, and appreciating to be appreciated. It's a reminder that doing good deeds for others will inspire them to do the same for you at some point.
The Law of Psychological Reciprocity
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

The law of psychological reciprocity is kind of like the social glue that enriches relationships. It’s basically about doing something good for someone so they’re motivated to do the same for you. Furthermore, it’s about a disinterested “I give to you, you give to me”, only oriented to instill noble values in the social environment.

You’ll surely remember when someone did something nice for you. We’re sure you’ll have the opportunity to repay them for such a nice gesture. There are many opportunities to mimic altruistic behaviors, and it doesn’t only benefit the person you help. It makes you feel good too.

Although it may surprise you, reciprocity is a dimension that’s been part of human behavior since ancient times. The brain knows its benefits because it’s been part of us forever. In fact, archaeologist Richard Leakey points out that, “We’re human because our ancestors learned to share their food and skills in an honored network of duties”.

“Perhaps the most legitimately dispiriting thing about reciprocal altruism is that it’s a misnomer. Whereas with kin selection the “goal” of our genes is to actually help another organism, with reciprocal altruism the goal is that the organism be left under the impression that we’ve helped; the impression alone is enough to bring the reciprocation.”

-Robert Wright-

Two people high-fiving.

The law of psychological reciprocity

This law is also known as the reciprocity principle. In a way, it’s an attempt to entice someone to do something nice.

You experience this dimension when a person gives you a gift and, sooner or later, you know you have to give them one.

Does this mean that reciprocity starts from “obligation”? Not really. Some studies, such as those conducted at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in Germany, indicate that it’s more about social influence. Emotions and social gestures influence human beings and it, rather than being compelling, inspires or encourages us to do the same.

Acting reciprocally will allow you to feel good after doing something nice for someone else. There’s no pressure nor demands. Only the free genuine impulse to have a positive and enriching impact on others. Continue reading to delve a little deeper into this topic.

Intention, empathy, and credibility

Three powerful roots are the foundations of the law of reciprocity: intention, empathy, and credibility. Think about it. For a kind, good, and helpful gesture to be credible, a person must perceive it as a clear intention to do good. There mustn’t be a hidden interest behind it. Likewise, they must feel empathy, as only in this way will they be able to build the basis of a reciprocal deed.

Likewise, far from being false, reciprocity creates an impact on the other because it’s credible. Thus, it’d be meaningless without these three factors.

The law of reciprocity in personal relationships

There’s an undeniable fact: friendship, partnership, companionship, and family relationships are based on the law of reciprocity. This is because it’s the cornerstone of every social bond and what builds the foundations of human culture. This dance between the act of giving and receiving is what makes human relationships satisfying.

People feel bad when they perceive that others aren’t grateful for what they do for them. This is because they invest affection, intentions, and actions aimed at boosting well-being in those around them from the heart. Their actions are authentic. Expecting immediate payback is unreasonable, of course. However, what most do expect is respect, consideration, and the same level of affection.

The law of psychological reciprocity in business and marketing

We mentioned the emotional influence of the law of reciprocity in personal relationships above. However, business and marketing also resort to this strategy. Thus, they’re familiar with it, know its impact and its social glue, and apply it to build customer loyalty.

Although there’s an economic interest behind it in this case, it’s still interesting to learn about the process. Here’s an example everyone is familiar with. Your telephone company calls to inform you they’ll give you unlimited data and a monthly discount on your bill if you don’t switch providers.

Of course, you don’t only pay attention to the discount when you hear this proposal. In many cases, hearing the term “gift” or “free” prompts you to respond positively to it. It’s a “You give me, I give you,” situation, even if there’s an economic interest behind it. You already know there’s no such thing as a free ride, right?

A couple friends greeting.

The law of psychological reciprocity is about giving in order to receive

You already know that reciprocity is a mechanism that has facilitated human evolution. Sharing resources, promoting prosocial behaviors, and helping to be helped allowed our species to advance. What you may not know is that, according to research studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the law of reciprocity is an adaptive mechanism present in most animal species.

Thus, many animals have this instinct and they know that helping often leads to more benefits than losses. So why not prioritize this behavior? It’ll have a direct impact on your emotional, social, and cultural well-being, as long as your intentions are good. This is just something to keep in mind.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.