Reciprocity Defined

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May 2005


Serge-Christophe KOLM

“Of all the persons, however, whom nature points out for our peculiar beneficence, there are none to whom it seems more properly directed than to those whose beneficence we have ourselves already experienced. Nature, which formed men for that mutual kindness, so necessary for their happiness, renders every man the peculiar object of kindness, to the persons to whom he himself has been kind.” Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (VI, 2, 1).

“Give and you will be given to.”


I. Facts and forms
1. Introduction
2. The evidence, scope, and pervasiveness of the reciprocity relationship 3. Reciprocity as the quintessential social bond
4. Definitions, givings and exchanges
5. Reciprocities: forms and structures

1 II. Motives

6. Motives: the three worlds of reciprocity
7. Reciprocity and other social sentiments
8. Reciprocity in the modes of economic realization

2 III. Values and reasons

9. The values of reciprocity
10. Normative uses of reciprocity
11. How and why? Understanding and explaining reciprocity

IV. Formal analysis and interaction
12. Formal analysis of reciprocity
13. Reciprocal interaction, process preferences, and consequences

V. 14. Reciprocity in economics

References and bibliography


1. Introduction[1]

1.1 Evidence, scope, and motives of reciprocity

In his Essay on the Gift (1924) – one of the most influential founding works of the social science – Marcel Mauss calls reciprocity “one of the human rocks on which societies are built.” Reciprocity is treating others as they treat you, because of this very fact and not as the result of some agreed upon or expected exchange (this will be explained in detail). This basic, polymorphic, and pervasive pattern of human social conduct is one of the few fundamental interactions that constitute societies, and, although it mobilizes most aspects of human social experience, its elementary forms closely relate to the other basic bonds of fairness, altruism, and joint interest.[2] The existence, extent, importance and forms of reciprocity are obvious. Indeed, you tend to give in return when you receive a gift or favour, and to hit back when harmed. You tend to like people who like you (and you need to be so positively considered, especially by people you consider). You tend to respect persons and properties if other people respect your person and your property. You tend to like people who benevolently give something to you or help you, and also to be grateful towards them, and this tends to induce you to aid them or give them gifts in turn. You may also feel morally indebted towards people who give something to you, or help or favour you, and this may induce you to give something in return, sometimes for relieving a situation felt as a burden – a motive thoroughly different from the foregoing one. You generally resent being hurt, and this may lead you to hurt back in revenge (you also tend to dislike people who hurt you, but mere disliking usually does not induce hurting – in contrast to giving because of liking; and in a similar contrast, being disliked does not induce disliking as being liked tends to induce liking). You tend to trust people who trust you (trustful people tend to be trustworthy – because trustworthy people tend to think others are like them). It is well documented that you tend to be helpful if you have been helped – even by people different from those you help (this classical “helping behaviour” is called “generalized reciprocity”). Symmetrically, the plea that offenders were themselves victims of crime in their youth is one of the most common lines of defence in court cases. Both the philosopher René Descartes and Adam Smith discuss the opposite fact that people who tend to help others...
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