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The norm of reciprocity is a social norm, the social expectation that people will respond to each other in kind — returning benefits for benefits, and responding with either indifference or hostility to harms. The social norm of reciprocity often takes different forms in different areas of social life, or in different societies. All of them, however, are distinct from related ideas such as gratitude, the Golden Rule, or mutual goodwill. See Reciprocity (social and political philosophy) for an analysis of the concepts involved.

An underlying norm of reciprocity is by itself a powerful engine for motivating, creating, sustaining, and regulating the cooperative behavior required for self-sustaining social organizations—as well as for controlling the damage done by the unscrupulous. See the discussions in tit for tat and Reciprocity (social psychology). The power and ubiquity of the norm of reciprocity can be used against the unwary, however, and is the basis for the success of many malicious confidence games. Minor, usually less malicious examples are techniques used in advertising and other propaganda whereby a small gift of some kind is proffered with the expectation of producing a desire on the part of the recipient to reciprocate in some way, for example by purchasing a product, making a donation, or becoming more receptive to a line of argument. These minor examples include gifts of stickers and pens distributed by charities and flowers handed out by members of the Hare Krishna group.

In organizational research

Perceived organizational support (POS) and Perceived psychological contract violation (PPCV) are the two most common measures of the reciprocity norm in organizational research. POS is the degree to which employees’ believe that their organization values their contributions and cares about their well-being (Eisenberger, Huntington, Huntington, & Sowa, 1986). [1] POS is generally thought to be the organization’s contribution to a positive reciprocity dynamic with employees, as employees tend to perform better to pay back POS (Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002).[2] PPCV is a construct that regards employees’ feelings of disappointment (ranging from minor frustration to betrayal) arising from their belief that their organization has broken its work-related promises (Morrison & Robinson, 1997), is generally thought to be the organization’s contribution to a negative reciprocity dynamic, as employees tend to perform more poorly to pay back PPCV (Robinson, 1996; Robinson, Kraatz, & Rousseau, 1994; Turnley & Feldman, 1999). [3][4]

David R. Hekman and colleagues (2009) recently found that professional employees (e.g. doctors, lawyers) are most likely to repay POS with better performance when such workers have high levels of organizational identification combined with low levels of professional identification. They also found that professional employees are most forgiving of PPCV when they have high levels of organizational identification combined with low levels of professional identification.[5]

In evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychologists have used the norm of reciprocity to explain altruism by emphasizing our expectations that “helping others will increase the likelihood that they will help us in the future.” The underlying justification lies in the human desire to reciprocate kindness and cooperate for survival value has enabled our continued existence in a hostile world. Thus, the norm of reciprocity ultimately has survival value.[6] Furthermore, being as this sentiment is intrinsic to our evolutionary history and existence, adherence to the norm would constitute “natural” behavior whose neglect might necessarily cause a degree of dissonance in an individual who, among many other self-concepts, consciously labels himself a human being, perhaps leading to a reduction in self-esteem.

See also


  1. Eisenberger, R., Huntington, R., Huntington, S., & Sowa, D. 1986. Perceived organizational support. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71: 500 –507.
  2. Rhoades, L., & Eisenberger, R. 2002. Perceived organizational support: A review of the literature. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87: 698–714.
  3. Robinson, S. L. 1996. Trust and breach of the psychological contract. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41: 574 –599.
  4. Robinson, S. L., Kraatz, M., & Rousseau, D. M. 1994. Changing obligations and the psychological contract: A longitudinal study. Academy of Management Journal, 37: 137–152.
  5. Hekman, D.R., Steensma, H.K., Bigley, G.A., Hereford, J.F., (2009) “Combined Effects of Organizational and Professional Identification on the Reciprocity Dynamic for Professional Employees.” Academy of Management Journal. Volume 52, Number 3.
  6. Aronson, W. A. (2007). Social Psychology 6th Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Further reading

  • Cialdini, R. B. (1984) Influence. New York, NY: Morrow. ISBN 0-688-04107-8
  • Gouldner, Alvin Ward (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review 25 (2): 161–178.
  • Pratkanis, A. & Aronson, E. (2001). The Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. New York, NY: Owl Books. ISBN 0-8050-7403-1

External links