Reciprocity Norm

Reciprocity Norm Definition

Reciprocity norm is the rule of human interaction that says people need to reciprocate the action of another person. Simply, this means that when a person is given a gift (which can take any number of forms) by another, the person must repay the gift. Every investigated society has a version of the reciprocity norm. The reciprocity norm has also been termed a web of indebtedness by cultural anthropologists.

The reciprocity norm’s presence in every investigated society points to its importance and function. The reciprocity norm has many benefits for society, such as reciprocal altruism. There are also important sanctions for those who do not follow the norm in its prescribed mannerisms (which can vary from society to society). It is important that one is aware of how the norm can be abused.

Aspects of the Reciprocity Norm

Reciprocity NormThe fact that the norm is present in every investigated society suggests that it is a vital component of human interaction. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that reciprocity was clearly present in human beings’ ancestral past and has contributed to human survival. They point to various experiments where reciprocity helps explain the mystery of altruism. “If you scratch my back, I will scratch yours” is common colloquialism that is based on reciprocity.

Reciprocity will occur regardless of whether the reciprocation is done publicly or privately. Studies have investigated the extent to which people will reciprocate even if the original gift-giver is completely unable to tell if the gift was reciprocated. It has been found that people reciprocate the gift, although gift recipients donated slightly less than they might have in a more public situation.

People are very good at detecting cheating in social situations, such as receiving a favor without repaying it. Humans excel in tasks in which the problem is set up as a social cheating scenario, whereas the same task set up as a purely numerical task results in much worse performance.

Other limits on the potential for cheating are enforced by society. Societies have various sanctions for people who break the reciprocity norm, ranging from calling someone a “mooch,” to social isolation, to serious legal consequences, which includes death in some cultures. Third parties will often intervene on behalf of someone who has just been shorted by a violation of the reciprocity norm, even if it means incurring some penalty of their own.

Abuses of the Reciprocity Norm

Importantly, the reciprocity norm itself does not have rules of interaction in most cultures (but see the cross-cultural section later for an important caveat); instead, the norm simply says that the gift must be reciprocated in some fashion. This leaves open the potential for very uneven exchanges.

Dennis Regan clearly demonstrated this effect by setting up an experiment that was purportedly on art appreciation. In this experiment, a participant would come in and rate a painting. Another “participant” (who actually was working for the experiment—also known as a confederate) was also there to rate art. During the course of the experiment, the confederate gave the participant an unsolicited gift of a can of Coca-Cola. The confederate later asked the participant to purchase raffle tickets. Regan found that the gift of the Coke doubled the number of tickets purchased over a control condition. This is important because the cost of the Coke was significantly less than the cost of a single ticket. In fact, the confederate was able to get a 500% return on the cost of the gift in terms of raffle tickets purchased.

Also, it does not matter if the original gift was not wanted, or even forced onto the receiver; they are still obligated to reciprocate. This has been demonstrated in a number of experimental studies; however, perhaps the best example is the Hare Krishnas.

The Hare Krishnas are a religious organization that used reciprocity very effectively in the 1970s and 1980s. The Krishnas would give a small gift to a traveler, often a flower, and then solicit the traveler to make a donation to their religion. The travelers would begrudgingly give the donation, and then could often be seen throwing the flowers away in disgust. As evidenced by their facial expressions and the frequency they threw the flowers away, the travelers had been forced into giving a donation to a religion that most did not support through the reciprocity norm.

To date, it appears that there is only one limit on reciprocity: when the gift-giver asks the receiver to participate in an antisocial activity. In these cases, the norm of reciprocity does not increase compliance with the request. However, this occurs only in a strictly antisocial activity, such as abetting cheating on a test. More ambiguous circumstances show the increase in compliance to a reciprocity-based request.

Cross-Cultural Aspects of the Reciprocity Norm

Another important topic when discussing reciprocity norm is its cross-cultural relevance. It appears that reciprocity occurs in every known society; however, not all societies have the same rules regarding reciprocity. Some have formal, ritualized rules that parse out the debts. For instance, Vartan Bhanji is a ritual form of gift exchange in Pakistan and India. This system ensures that there are no outstanding debts left unpaid. The gifts that are exchanged are often weighed out to ensure the equality of the exchange. Other societies, such as the one in the United States, do not have formalized rules. Despite the lack of formalized rules, there is a clear norm of reciprocation, and when one breaks the norm, there are consequences.


  1. Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25, 63-87.
  3. Regan, D. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.