Transactional Mindset: Expecting to Get Back What You Give

It's always best to assume that you won't always get back what you give. In fact, the most important thing is to act as your heart feels, at the same time hoping you'll be respected.
Transactional Mindset: Expecting to Get Back What You Give
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 12 January, 2022

A person with a transactional mindset views a relationship as a business. In fact, these people expect everything they invest to generate returns in a given time. However, as you know, in the world of human relationships this formula doesn’t always work.

You don’t always get what you give in friendships, family, and other emotional relationships. This is something you learn over time. If you don’t accept this fact, you’ll find yourself feeling as if you’re banging your head up against a wall.

Does this mean that in your social and emotional relationships you shouldn’t expect anything from others? The answer is yes. This doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve a lot from them. Indeed, the people who are part of your life should always offer you affection, trust, recognition, and support.

However, understanding relationships as a commercial business, in which every act, gesture, or favor must be returned in an equitable way is useless and only ends up in suffering.

The simple act of giving is satisfying enough for those who just act from the heart and follow their own values.

image symbolizing the distance generated by the transactional mentality

Transactional mindset

Don’t fool yourself, there’s a little bit of the transactional mindset in all of us. After all, you always want and hope that your good deeds and efforts will be recognized and rewarded.

For example, if you take a friend to the airport today, you hope that tomorrow they’ll return the favor. Likewise, if every day you spend considerable time caring for a relative in hospital, you hope that your gesture will be valued and returned in some way.

However, you often rather quickly discover that many of your efforts go unheeded. Indeed, in life, you become aware that not everyone takes your gestures into account and, often, what you’ve given doesn’t get rewarded at the end of the day. Faced with this internal panorama of disappointment and disillusion, there’s only one option. Change your approach.

The transactional mind or the equalizing personality

Equalizing personality is an interesting term. It means being obsessed with getting back what you give. It’s a curious phenomenon that occurs frequently.

However, if you have this kind of personality, when you discover that you don’t get back what you give, you start operating in the opposite way. In other words, you haven’t got what you expected so you take something away from the other person. In other words, you don’t hesitate to give as well as take, based on how others behave toward you.

However, what’s the consequence of this psychosocial approach? You might think it’s completely fair. After all, why be considerate to someone who doesn’t return the favor? Well, as a matter of fact, employing this kind of perspective on a continuous basis only generates progressive wear and tear. 

By putting everyone on a scale and weighing whether what you invest is the same as you recieve, you become emotionally greedy over time. Also, you become frustrated because there are very few times that you feel completely satisfied.

Reciprocity isn’t equal to universal justice

In reality, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of a transactional mindset and the discomfort that this entails. That’s because you’re reinforcing a misconception of what reciprocity actually is.

The Ohio State University (USA) conducted research that claimed that prosocial behavior is paradoxical and reciprocity is expressed in many ways. However, it can’t be conceived of through a transactional mindset.

Relationships can’t be based on a kind of social justice in which you focus only on what you receive from others in an equitable way. Because there are often many other ways that others convey their affection and appreciation to you.

For example, your brother may not call you as many times as you call him. However, he’s always there when you need him. Or, your friend may not have returned the favor you did them a month ago, but despite this, they care about you and you know you can trust them.

People with transactional mindsets are like debt collectors

As we mentioned earlier, we all harbor certain nuances of this feature but there are many who exhibit an obsessive transactional mentality.

These are people with great deficiencies who end up becoming excessively demanding. They measure every gesture and effort that they make for others (even those that no one asked of them) to the last millimeter, and demand a return of the same.

If these people don’t receive what they expect, they accuse, criticize, and manipulate. Furthermore, they don’t hesitate in victimizing themselves to make others feel guilty. They’re the kinds of family and friends who say “I’ve done so much for you, now it’s payback time.” Indeed, we all know someone with this profile and we know the effect they can have.

Mother and daughter angry because of transactional mindset

Act according to your own values, offer what your heart dictates and you’ll be happy

It’s true that happy and meaningful relationships are based on reciprocity. However, be careful. It’s not an exact transactional reciprocity to be worked out on a tit for tat basis. As a matter of fact, the most satisfying reciprocity is one that works from the heart.

You give because you want to. You offer something to another when you feel like it, or because they need it. You give freely, sincerely, and you put no pressure on the other person to return the favor. In fact,  generosity, altruism, and giving because you want to without obsessing about getting something in return positively affects your well-being and happiness.

It might interest you...
Expect Nothing, and You Have Nothing to Lose
Exploring your mind
Read it in Exploring your mind
Expect Nothing, and You Have Nothing to Lose

It's often our rigid expectations that make it so painful when something doesn't go the way we want. But if you expect nothing, you have nothing to...



  • Chuan, Amanda, Judd B. Kessler, Katherine L. Milkman Reciprocity decays over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2018, 115 (8) 1766-1771; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1708293115
  • Mahmoodi, A., Bahrami, B., & Mehring, C. (2018). Reciprocity of social influence. Nature communications, 9(1), 2474. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04925-y
  • Terada, Kazunori, C. Santos,Francisco. Emotion expressions shape human social norms and reputations, iScience, 24, 3, (102141), (2021).. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2021.102141