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Reciprocity, Norm of

Reciprocity, Norm of


Social norms refer to the rules and expectations about how people should behave in a group or culture, and pertain to generally accepted ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that people agree on and endorse as right or proper. Various norms can be distinguished: among others, the norm of social responsibility, prescribing that people should help others who are dependent on them; the norm of social justice or fairness, which relates to the just distribution of resources; and the norm of social commitment, which concerns the shared view that people should honor their agreements and obligations.

American sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1960) was the first to propose the existence of a universal, generalized norm of reciprocity. He argued that almost all societies endorse some form of the reciprocity norm, and that only a few members were exempt from itthe very young, the sick, and the old. The norm regulates the exchanges of goods and services between people in ongoing group or individual relationships, dictating that people should help those who have helped them, that people should not injure those who have helped them, and that legitimate penalties may be imposed on those who fail to reciprocate. Reciprocity thus calls for positive reactions to favorable treatment and for negative reactions to unfavorable treatment. The things exchanged may be heteromorphic; that is, the goods or services may be concretely different but equal in value, as perceived as such by the exchange partners. Or the things may be homomorphic; that is, the goods or services may be roughly equivalent, or identical. Recent developments indicate support for Gouldners general statement concerning the universality of the norm (Cosmides and Tooby 1992; Ridley 1997; Sober and Wilson 1998; for primates, see De Waal, 1982, 1996).

The norm has important social functions in ongoing relationships. It increases social stability in social groups or systems, and it structures and maintains the social relationships. Additionally, reciprocity may function as a positive, facilitating starting mechanism for the development of stable and enduring social relations in newly formed relationships. If a future time perspective is imposed in the social exchange relationship, the norm hinders the pursuit of nonreciprocal, selfish, and/or exploitative moves on the part of the exchange partners, thereby fostering mutual cooperation between them. As such, the time variable increases stability in the social system through reciprocity (Axelrod 1984).

Reciprocity is an evolutionary factor that can favor, among others, altruism among kin (kin selection ; Hamilton 1964), and nonkin (reciprocal altruism, Trivers 1971; Axelrod and Hamilton 1981). As such it is an important factor in the social exchanges of many species, including humans, influencing such diverse behavior as helping (Lorenz 1966), cooperation (Axelrod 1984), compliance with requests in economic exchanges (Cialdini 1993), dealing with conflict and associated health impairment in organizational settings (Buunk and Schaufeli 1999), and bargaining and negotiations in conflicts in international settings (Lindskold 1978).

To indicate its relevance in social relationships, mechanisms have evolved to detect cheaters (that is, nonreciprocators, or exploiters; see Cosmides and Tooby 1992; Wright 1994). Furthermore, research on negative reciprocity has shown a strong relationship between the violation of the reciprocity norm by cheaters and norm-enforcing, punitive, aggressive actions, exemplifying the lex talionis, or the eye-for an-eye tendency. This research involved computer simulations by Axelrod (1986: punitive meta-norm ) and Boyd and Richerson (1992: moralistic strategies ); research among primates by Brosnan and De Waal (2003; equity aversion ); and neuropsychological studies among human subjects (e.g., De Quervain et al. 2004: altruistic punishment ). The findings of all these studies generally revealed that (a) parallel to the norm of reciprocity in social exchange relationships, secondary, punitive norms have evolved that dictate the legitimate, aggressive enforcement of the former one in different species, and (b) that effective retaliation against transgressors or cheaters may be more satisfactory than ineffective retaliation.

A pervasive phenomenon in intergroup relations is in-group favoritism, or in-group bias: Individuals evaluate their own group (or in-group) and its members more favorably than an out-group and its members on relevant dimensions, or they allocate more of a valued resource (money) to in-group members than to out-group members. Many social-psychological theories, such as social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1986) and selfcategorization theory (e.g., Hogg 1992), serve as the main explanations for this phenomenon. However, recent developments indicate that in-group reciprocity can also at least partially account for this pervasive intergroup behavior (Gaertner and Insko 2000; Rabbie and Lodewijkx 1994; Stroebe, Lodewijkx, and Spears 2005).

SEE ALSO Altruism; Collective Action; Communitarianism; Culture; Evolutionary Psychology; Exchangeability; Identity, Social; Norms; Punishment; Shame; Social Exchange Theory; Social Psychology; Trust


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Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. 1992. Punishment Allows the Evolution of Cooperation (or Anything Else) in Sizable Groups. Ethology and Sociobiology 13 (3): 171-195.

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Hein F. M. Lodewijkx

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norm of reciprocity

norm of reciprocity See EXCHANGE THEORY.

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