Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned;
forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure,
pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure
you give will be the measure you get back.
Jesus – Luke 6:37-38
“The norm of reciprocity is universal.” If we do a favor, we expect one in return.
If we receive a favor we cannot return, we are distressed.
Donald W Pfaff, PhD – “The Neuroscience of Fair Play”
Reciprocity, in its various forms, is a fundamental principle of human nature and
is the basis for mutually beneficial relationships. It serves proportionately to
reward helpful behaviour and punish harmful behaviour; to show people how we feel
about their actions towards us; and to show them what their actions towards others
feel like when you are on the receiving end.
Reciprocity is an ethical norm: an expected standard of behaviour. When we do wrong,
we are expected to try and put it right. If someone does us a favour, we feel an
obligation to repay them.
It feels good for both parties if we do someone else a favour. Because of the evolutionary
history of human beings (interdependence and cooperation), in this situation we subconsciously
expect to receive a benefit in return. This is the case even when we anonymously
benefit a stranger whom we can never meet or communicate with.
Reciprocity thrives on repeated encounters – on long-lasting relationships. These
were the conditions that prevailed when our ancient ancestors lived and survived
together in small groups on the African savannah. For these people, as ourselves,
reciprocity was a way to survive.
Fairness in exchanges: equity and proportionality
There are two kinds of fairness: equity, where everyone receives the same or according
to their needs; and proportionality, where people receive according to the effort
and resources they have put in. These definitions are not standard or fixed within
In reciprocal exchanges, we expect both equity, where elements from both sides are
matched to be the same; and proportionality, where a response is judged to be in
proportion to the event that triggered it.
Varieties of reciprocity
This is the simplest form of reciprocity: what you do to me I do in return.
Tit-for-tat is the form of reciprocity used in trade and business.
In personal relations, it is the normal mode between people who do not know each
other well, who do not have an interdependent relationship. Therefore it is more
dominant within large groups (where many people are strangers) than in small groups
(where people tend to have long-lasting interdependent relationships).
In conflict situations, tit-for-tat is a dangerous way to proceed. On the one hand,
it is necessary to meet force with force. On the other hand, at some point it is
necessary to stop the merry-go-round of back-and-forth recrimination, for the sake
of long-term prosperity for both sides.
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leads to a land of people with no eyes
and no teeth.
Credit: Frans B M de Waal – “How Animals Do Business” – Scientific American, April
The bad situation needs to be brought to an end quickly and with compassion for the
best interests of all concerned, aiming to protect the aggressor from their own foolishness
and from continuing to make things worse for themselves.
It is wise to treat people as if they are well-meaning and intelligent, instead of
the stupid evil scumbag they might appear to be. Instead of condemning them, educate
them to be a better person. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
In the personal sphere, there are normally two situations in which unconditional
love arises: 1) within the family; 2) within “symmetry-based” reciprocity. In
symmetry-based reciprocity, there are two people who share a common goal: it may
be surviving or getting through life. Since one person depends on the other, or
each person depends on the other, it makes sense for one side to help the other,
without needing any direct or immediate return. Therefore, within unconditional
love, the appropriate response to wrong or mistaken behaviour is correction and forgiveness
rather than punishment and judgement. Within the family, the common goal is effectively
formed by having common genes, and the effective goal of genes is survival.
Mathematical game theory, cooperation, reciprocity and forgiveness
Reciprocity can be studied using computer simulations. Two computer-simulated agents
play a game together over many rounds, where in each round, each agent can either
"cooperate" with the other, or "defect" (refuse to cooperate), based on what the
other did in the previous round. The aim is to see, for various different strategies,
how long it takes for mutual cooperation to fall apart. The winning strategy has
been found to be "hopeful, generous and forgiving". Hopeful means that you need
to start the interaction by being cooperative, and hope that this will encourage
the other party to cooperate in return. Forgiving means that if the other person
defects, you will work hard to rebuild a working relationship of cooperation. Generous
means not to be too worried about getting exact returns for what you have put in,
but instead be pleased to be engaged in a cooperative relationship where everybody
On the computer it is found that if you forgive 100% of the time, cooperation quite
quickly falls apart and this is not a successful strategy. If you always forgive
bad behaviour, there is no incentive for the badly behaved person to behave well,
and since they are not interested in mutual cooperation, the working relationship
Islands of cooperation
In hostile, dog-eat-dog environments where people are fighting rather than cooperating,
those who want to cooperate need to stick together to form “islands of cooperation”.
Reciprocity is a survival skill in hunter-gatherer societies
During the voyage of the Beagle when the young Charles Darwin first encountered the
“savages” living in Tierra Del Fuego, he was amazed to realize that “some of the
Fuegians plainly showed that they had a fair notion of barter ... I gave one man
a large nail (a most valuable present) without making any signs for a return; but
he immediately picked out two fish, and handed them up on the point of his spear.”
When a person acts generously or responds to a generous act, the dopamine-associated
pleasure centre in their brain is activated. ...
In hunter-gatherer societies, reciprocity is used to create and maintain social networks,
some of them very wide.
When [Ju/’hoansi, African Bushmen] still roamed across the semi-arid Kalahari, with
no way to store food, these people understood that their most important resources
were their reputations and the stored goodwill of others. ...
For those who store social obligations rather than food, unspoken contracts – beginning
with the most fundamental one between the group's gatherers and its hunters, and
extending to kin and as-if kin in other groups – tide them over from shortfall to
shortfall. Time-honored relationships enable people to forage over wider areas and
to reconnect with trusted exchange partners without fear of being killed by local
inhabitants who have the advantage of being more familiar with the terrain. When
a waterhole dries up in one place, when the game moves away, or, perhaps most dreaded
of all, when a conflict erupts and the group must split up, people can cash in on
old debts and generous reputations built up over time through participation in well-greased
networks of exchange.
The particular exchange networks that [Polly] Wiessner studied among the Ju/’hoansi
are called hxaro. Some 69 percent of the items every Bushman used – knives, arrows,
and other utensils; beads and clothes – were transitory possessions, fleetingly treasured
before being passed on in a chronically circulating traffic of objects. A gift received
one year was passed on the next. In contrast to our own society where regifting
is regarded as gauche, among the Ju/’hoansi it was not passing things on - valuing
an object more than a relationship, or hoarding a treasure - that was socially unacceptable.
As Wiessner put it, “The circulation of gifts in the Kalahari gives partners information
that they ‘hold each other in their hearts’ and can be called on in times of need.”
A distinctive feature of human social relations was this “release from proximity.”
It meant that even people who had moved far away and been out of contact for many
years could meet as fondly remembered friends years later. Anticipation of goodwill
helps explain the 2008 finding by psychologists at the University of British Columbia
and Harvard Business School that spending money on other people had a more positive
impact on the happiness of their study subjects than spending the same amount of
money on themselves.
In her detailed study of nearly a thousand hxaro partnerships over thirty years,
Wiessner learned that the typical adult had anywhere from 2 to 42 exchange relationships,
with an average of 16. Like any prudently diversified stock portfolio, partnerships
were balanced so as to include individuals of both sexes and all ages, people skilled
in different domains and distributed across space. Approximately 18 percent resided
in the partner's own camp, 24 percent in nearby camps, 21 percent in a camp at least
16 kilometres away, and 33 percent in more distant camps, between 51 and 200 kilometres
Just under half of the partnerships were maintained with people as closely related
as first cousins, but almost as many were with more distant kin. Partnerships could
be acquired at birth, when parents named a new baby after a future gift-giver (much
as Christians designate god-parents), or they could be passed on as a heritable legacy
when one of the partners died. Since meat of large animals was always shared, people
often sought to be connected with skilled hunters. This is why the best hunters
tended to have very far-flung assortments of hxazro contacts, as did their wives.
Contacts were built up over the course of a life well-lived by individuals perpetually
alert to new opportunities. When a parent died, his or her children or stepchildren
inherited the deceased person's exchange partners as well as kinship networks, and
gifts were often given at that time to reinforce the continuity, since to give, share,
and reciprocate was to survive. Multiple systems for identifying kin linked people
in different ways, increasing the number of people to whom an individual was related.
One kinship system was based on marriage and blood ties, while another involved
the name one was given, which automatically forged a tie to others with the same
name. These manufactured or fictive kin were also referred to as mother, father,
brother, or sister.
Such dual systems function to spread the web of kinship widely, and since the second
system can be revised over the course of an individual's lifetime, it becomes feasible
for a namesake to bring even distant kin into a closer relationship when useful.
Every human society depends on some system of exchange and mutual aid, but foragers
have elevated exchange to a core value and an elaborate art form. People construct
vast and intricate terminologies to identify kin and as-if kin, in order to expand
the potential for relationships based on trust. Depending on the situation, these
can be activated and kept going by reciprocal exchange or left dormant until needed.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy – “Mothers and Others – the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding”
Indirect reciprocity: reputation
How I treat you depends on how you treat others. It requires communication for a
reputation to become well known. You may have to wait a while before the benefits
of your good reputation come back to you.
“Bus driver gives a homeless man a £5 note – has his generosity rewarded by good
Giving for the sake of giving, without thought of return.
Treating others as you would wish to be treated.
“I recognise your predicament, therefore I want to help you.”
Generalized warmth and gratitude ("upstream reciprocity")
Kindness spreads. Studies have shown that if we are kind to someone, they are more
likely to go on to treat others with kindness. The result is a kinder environment
People like to imitate each other, and to imitate what works best.
Kindness produces more kindness
Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D Perry MD, PhD – “Born for Love”
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall
it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden
under foot of men.
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither
do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth
light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they
may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Jesus – Philippians 2: 13-16
Generalized bad feelings (upstream reciprocity)
Similarly, meanness and unkindness tend to spread. Being mean or unkind to someone
makes it more likely for that person to treat others badly, as well as oneself, leading
to a degrading of kindness in the environment.
We instinctively mirror the attitude of the person who is addressing us.
“Your attitude affects my attitude”
In humans, emotional suggestion is a powerful shaper of social behavior. We’re exquisitely
tuned in to the body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice of those around
us, and will unconsciously mimic and synchronize these outward expressions of emotion.
“Wild Justice – the moral lives of animals” by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce
Our attitude is written all over us plainly for all to see, via our body language
Attitudinal reciprocity – positive or negative feelings
“I feel a warm positive regard towards you because you benefit me, therefore I want
to help you”
“I have a feeling of dislike towards you because you harmed me, therefore I do not
want to help you”
“Symmetry-based”, or “friendship” reciprocity
"What's good for you is good for me."
This kind of reciprocity works best in situations where people have a shared destiny
or shared goals. In early societies of Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo
sapiens, living in small groups in harsh environments, people were highly interdependent,
sharing the goal of surviving together, by depending on each other to help gather
and prepare food and to share the care of children. Since each individual needed
the cooperation and help of others, it was necessary to care for and help those others
as they needed it. This is still the situation today in long-standing friendships
and other relationships whose members share a goal, intentions or destiny. It can
be described by the “stakeholder model”: “I have a stake in your well being”. See
also unconditional love, cooperation, interdependence.
This kind of reciprocity is thought to be the prevailing one throughout the animal
kingdom. It is probably beyond the abilities of non-human animals to set up and
fulfil long-lasting contracts and take part in repeated, proportionate exchanges
of goods, which is the classical tit-for-tat model of reciprocity. Instead, one
individual will develop a warm positive regard and emotions for another on whom they
depend for benefit and survival, leading them to help and support this other when
they need it. This is more like attitudinal reciprocity than a business exchange.
How you treat someone influences how they go on to treat others.
... in late 2007 the science media widely reported a study by zoologists Claudia
Rutte and Michael Taborsky suggesting that rats display what they call “[upstream]
reciprocity”, providing help to an unrelated and unfamiliar individual, based on
the rat’s own previous experience of having helped by an unfamiliar rat. Rutte and
Taborsky trained rats in a cooperative task of pulling a stick to obtain food for
a partner. Rats who had been helped previously by an unknown partner were more likely
to help others.
Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce – “Wild Justice – the moral lives of animals”
Upstream reciprocity may be thought of as the Golden Rule combined with reciprocity:
“when I was in this person’s position, someone helped me, therefore I will help this