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 empathy, the golden rule and many moral codes. It is also the basis for revenge.
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 exchange.
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 and lead to 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 power relationships.
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 survive.
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 and justice.
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 mediums include:
- Money—cash, checks, promissory notes, and other forms of legal tender.
- Tangible goods—useful, decorative, rare, or sentimentally valuable physical items.
- 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 and sensuous.
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 (known as 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 bowl.
- 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 relationship,
- 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 regard,
- approaching activities mindlessly rather than mindfully,
- deciding not to vote as your protest for unsatisfactory political processes,
- 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 interpersonal 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.” ~ Dave Mason
- “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.