Humans return favors, we also extract revenge, and we certainly keep score. We are fascinated by keeping
account of helpful and hurtful actions; including our own and those of others. We
constantly appraise the balance in each account as they accumulate the value of
our social exchanges with acquaintances. We are keenly attuned to recognize
symmetry. Fair exchange
is an important human principle; it holds a community together and forms the basis of
broader morality. Both sympathy and cruelty require imagining how your behavior
affects the other.
- Mutual exchange,
- Fair exchange,
- Symmetrical actions.
Many phrases refer to our various concepts of reciprocity and
symmetry. These include:
returning favors, cooperation, social obligation, squaring accounts, payback, settling the score,
fairness, fair is fair, tit for tat, quid pro quo, you'll get what you deserve, what goes
around come around, and we reap what we sow.
In a Word
When asked, “Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for
life?” Confucius replied, “It is the word 'shu' — reciprocity. Do not impose on
others what you yourself do not desire.” This, of course, is the basis for
golden rule and many moral codes. It is also the basis for
There are two main reasons why people help each other. The first is that
helping kin helps to increase the number of your own genes that survive in
the gene pool. The second reason is that you can often help yourself by
helping others. Generosity pays. Mutual cooperation is the basis of many
beneficial coalitions and social groups. Humans are vulnerable and very
often depend on each other. People value fairness because it avoids
conflict. The emotions of Guilt and
shame are internal mechanisms that promote fair
Exchanges can be helpful or hurtful, constructive or destructive, positive or
negative. Helpful exchanges result from gratitude
and lead to altruism. Hurtful exchanges result from anger
revenge. Many social activities involving mutual
exchange, such as participating in a car pool or joining a bridge club, provide
similar benefit to all participants.
Balance and Symmetry
Exchanges can be balanced or unbalanced, symmetrical or asymmetrical,
proportionate or disproportionate. Balanced exchanges sustain peer
relationships, unbalanced exchanges establish
Equality—often manifest as fair exchange—is the fundamental basis for peace.
Whatever you want for yourself you should also be willing to give to the other
party. Applying this principle sooner rather than later avoids the inevitable
conflict that the inequality will eventually cause.
Exchanges may be completed rapidly, immediately returning one favor for
another, or the exchange may be one-sided for a prolonged period of time. Accounts accumulate
over time, and a debt continues to grow. Some people feel indebted, others
may pay in advance, but in any case it's pay me now or pay me later.
Resources and Emotions
We need food to survive, and sex to procreate. Filling
these needs requires sharing resources. Many emotions originate from the fundamental need to
share and conserve resources to
The vindictive passions—intense feelings of resentment, anger,
hatred, and the desire for revenge
against those who wrong us—are an integral part of
human nature. They originate from the need for self-defense, for preserving
our self-respect, and for maintaining moral order—our clear understanding of
acceptable and unacceptable ways to treat humans. It is at the root of fairness
Cheating is a selfish attempt to break the rules, ride for free, and reap the
benefits of group life without charging anything to the account. Cheating attempts to avoid the payback
required by reciprocity. It is asymmetrical and anti-social. Social
organizations typical arrange to punish cheaters. This may be within the rule of
law, for example arresting people who steal. Or it may be informal, for example
no longer involving people who do not reciprocate favors.
Trust is the expectation of fair exchange and the absence of cheating.
We reciprocate based on our assessment of the value of what we receive and
our assessment of the value of what we contribute. Our estimates are based on
our first-person viewpoint and are often
substantially different from what others might appraise. One dangerous example
of this is the magnitude gap—where a injured person assesses their
hurt as being much more serious than the appraisal of the person causing the
harm. If proportionate revenge is sought, then the actual response is too great.
This leads rapidly to dangerous escalation of a revenge cycle.
Currencies of Exchange
While we often think of money as the medium of exchange in transactions, the
currency can be anything valuable and can take any of several forms. According to a
system developed in 1974 by Uriel and Edna Foa, the six basic types of exchange
- Money—cash, checks, promissory notes, and other forms of legal tender.
- Tangible goods—useful, decorative, rare, or sentimentally valuable physical
- Intangible services—medical care, legal advice, expert assistance, or
any other valuable service.
- Positive regard—Friendship, love, attention, empathy or caring that
demonstrates you are sincerely valued by another
- Prestige—respectful titles, deference, status symbols, recognition, and
other ways to acknowledge stature.
- Sexual gratification—ranging from attention and flirting to full and
enthusiastic sexual access, this currency is most available to the beautiful
Beware that all of these can be counterfeit.
Reputation is estimated from the accessible history of behavior in past
exchanges. People who consistently make generous and timely positive
contributions, often without obligation, and who take
responsibility for their choices establish the very best reputations for
themselves. Reputations are tarnished by failing to fully reciprocate, perhaps
by incurring substantial debt, returning lower value, delay in reciprocation,
failing to reciprocate, extracting some cost or concession for reciprocating,
avoiding responsibility, or
cheating in some other way. Trust is earned from a long history of reliable
exchanges—dependable reciprocity. Unreliable exchanges quickly tarnish a
reputation. We often describe people we distrust as being
unreliable. Reciprocity establishes reputation, however we often rely on
indirect information and surrogates to help estimate a person's reputation. This may include
the opinions of others, image, or often a variety of symbols used as proxies for
reputation, such as appearance, associates, status,
brands, and longevity.
A community is a social group where each individual has a significant
relationship with every other individual. Reciprocity works well within a
community because it is easy to keep score. Reputations are earned and well known. It is readily apparent who
contributes fully, who is slacking off, who is selfish and fails to share, who
is disingenuous, who avoids responsibility, and who cheats. Members of the community reciprocate, either
positively or negatively, to quickly and consistently reward or punish community
members according to their contribution. Keeping score on the exchange of
favors over time requires considerable skill, however. It requires the ability to
recognize individuals, remember past events, and evaluate contributions. Human
communities of about 150 or fewer people work well, because we have the ability
to remember the specific individual contributions of as many as 150 people
Dunbar's number). This is the
typical maximum size of a military squadron, many small to mid-sized companies,
and elementary schools. When organizations get bigger than this they often
require a formal bureaucratic structure, such as a personnel department, to take
the place of this community intelligence.
Reciprocity requires community. Hit-and-run artists sacrifice community ties
to avoid the obligations of reciprocity.
Buddhists use a variety of intricate knot images, like the one shown here, to
illustrate the importance of our many interconnections. You breath in the air
that I breath out; you drink the water I have washed with. We depend on the farmer to
eat, the factory worker for manufactured goods, the doctor to heal, the teacher to learn, the soldier to protect, the boss
for a job, the neighbor to converse, and the janitor to clean. We depended on
our parents to raise us, and when they grow old, our parents often depend on us
to care for them. Infectious diseases spread from person to person. Someone I asked years ago to help me find a job is now out of
work and asked me to help him find a job.
During communist rule, Bulgarian workers commented: “we pretend to work and
they pretend to pay us.” The transaction is fair—very little work is performed in
exchange for very little pay—but the equity of the transaction is low.
In this sense, equity refers to the overall value of the transaction; what each
party has at stake. Higher equity transactions are typically more satisfying. We
do our best, we demonstrate our
competence, we know we worked hard and
it was worth it. But low equity transactions can be tempting. Spending the
evening watching TV is easier than reading a book, performing community service,
or exercising. It is easier to attend and graduate from a lower rated college
than a top rated college or university. In return, the degree is often less
valuable. Low equity transactions are often based on the agreement to do
less than your best. Perhaps that is what “wink, wink” means.
The commercial concept of grade of service describes the equity in a
transaction. The same type of service is available in basic low-cost forms, or
in more complete or luxurious higher-cost forms. Here are some examples,
arranged roughly in order of increasing grades of service:
- Transportation: walk, ride a bike, drive yourself, take
a taxi cab, hire a private limousine, fly coach, fly first class, hire a
private jet, buy a private jet.
- See a live performance: High school production,
community theatre, off-Broadway, Broadway show, the Metropolitan Opera.
- Watch a sporting event: sand-lot baseball, little
league, high school sports teams, college sports teams, semi-professional or
minor league teams, professional sports teams, the world series or super
- Get hair cut: let it grow, do it yourself, barber, hair stylist,
premium hair stylist.
We participate in thousands of interpersonal transactions. It is helpful to
notice the equity we dedicate to these transactions. Examples of low equity, interpersonal transactions are:
- staying in an unsatisfying job to avoid having to learn new skills or
take on more responsibility,
- settling for an unsatisfactory marriage to avoid the hard work of
confronting issues, resolving problems, and establishing a satisfying
- underachievement in many forms, such as underemployment, lack of
participation, disengagement, lack of effort, and choosing to do less than
your best. This is often the result of settling for a “little ventured,
little lost” path of short-term convenience,
- tolerating an abusive relationship to avoid the hard work and
uncertainty of becoming
independent and self-sufficient,
- going along to get along, for example doing dangerous, cruel, or
wasteful things with a group of friends in an attempt to gain their positive
- approaching activities mindlessly rather than mindfully,
- deciding not to vote as your protest for unsatisfactory political
- auditing a college course rather than taking it for credit to avoid the
hard work of studying, writing papers, and mastering the material.
Pay attention to the choices you make regarding high- or low-equity
transactions. Choose the high-equity options where it matters most in your life.
If you truly need a break, then you may choose to settle for the comfortable
complacency of some low-equity
options until you regain the initiative and strength to again
do your best. It's OK to goof off
sometimes as long as you do your best when it matters most.
- “Shouldn't have took more than you gave. Wouldn't be in this mess today.” ~
- “Pay me now or pay me later.” ~
- “You reap what you sow.” ~
Our Inner Ape,
by Frans De Waal
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation,
by Matt Ridley
Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, by Roy F. Baumeister, Aaron Beck
Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and
Marriage, Paul Ekman
Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work,
by Johan Galtung
Power: The Infinite Game,
by Michael F. Broom and Donald Klein
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,
Robert D. Putnam
The Music Man, In this Meredith Willson musical, Professor
Harold Hill comes to town expecting to cheat the people of Iowa City
and instead provides the community a very fair exchange.