Why reciprocity is so deeply programmed in our mind

Years back, when I was reading Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“, I was so amazed by the different frameworks our mind works on. Reflecting on it, this book might have actually been the start of my interest in psychology and neverending curiosity about what makes us tick, how we make decisions and our mental shortcomings.

The book shows 6 different approaches that make people change their behavior/make them say ‘yes’.

– Authority
– Social Proof
– Reciprocity
– Scarcity
– Consistency
– Liking

As I am going over this, I might just write a post about each of them, but for today, I want to focus on reciprocity.

Reciprocity: You probably find a lot of different definitions out there, but it basically means that when you get provided something by a person, you should give back the same kind of treatment you have received.

So, when you receive a gift, next time you bring a gift for the other person.

You might say, “yes, why not, I like to give gifts/return the favor”. But do you also remember a case where you felt rather obligated to do so, even though you didn’t necessarily want to spend money/time? Guess what, you are likely not alone. That begs the question: why do we still do it?

Cialdini found out that the urge to repay is stronger than our level of sympathy. You don’t necessarily need to like a person to feel obligated to return a favor. Reciprocity > sympathy.

Especially in persuasion, this can be used against you. For example in sales. Even though you didn’t ask the other person for a favor, when your opponent is nice to you and – let’s say – invites you to lunch, you are more likely to return the favor and make a deal with them.

Things can also be a bit more tricky. I have female friends who say they never take drinks from men at bars, because they don’t want to feel that they owe the man (or woman) anything. Reciprocity is both a powerful tool that you can use in your favor, or a dangerous weapon that can be used against you.

So, why is this actually so deep within us?

Just today I was reading Sapiens (yes, I still haven’t finished) and was on the part of how money evolved in our societies. Long story short, the bigger societies became the more different societies got to trade with one another the more we needed to come up with a unified trading medium. Welcome: money.

That was a long time ago. However, way, way earlier, when groups were not bigger than 50 members & groups were more or less isolated from each other, there was no money and it was also not that important. Even though the author didn’t touch upon this, it made click for me. There was not a lot of trade happening, no people storing shoes or selling cars. Everything kind of happened in the moment. But also, in fact, everyone was needed and the group’s success was dependant on individual contribution. Either you were a hunter, took care of water, prepping weapons, or other tasks that were literally important for the tribe to survive. There was no free riding.

Besides this fact, keep in mind it was only a small group of people. Pretty likely you didn’t get along with everyone at every point of time. Hence, evolution equipped us, homo sapiens, with reciprocity to make sure everyone contributes, because everyone is needed. Everyone needs to chip in. This is why it is so deeply programmed in our mind (at lest my assumption, tbh). Reciprocity > sympathy.

Earlier, I called this a powerful tool or a dangerous weapon – depending on which side you are on. As usual, I don’t particularly see it as good or bad, rather something it is good to be aware of and to recognize when it is happening. Keep in mind, not everyone wants to trick you.


Thanks for reading,

Btw. I recommend both books, as I think everyone should learn about what makes us tick and how it influences our daily lives, so we can navigate through it.