Don’t take “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” too literally.
Most of us are familiar with the deeply held notion of an eye for an
eye. In an intriguing study of interpersonal relations, Boas Keysar and
his colleagues at the University of Chicago found that reciprocity, what
he calls “giving and taking,” is asymmetric. People reciprocate
generosity fairly equally the first time around, less so as time goes
on. But selfish acts are treated quite differently. If you screw
somebody, they’re going to screw you back twice as much—or more.
Overall, conflicts (taking) between people escalate rapidly,
while generosity and compassion (giving) sputter out pretty easily.
like to think that reciprocity is a simple give and take, “you scratch
my back and I’ll scratch yours.” But the sentiments of that well-worn
aphorism don’t square with reality. The research found that relationship
(social) exchanges, in contrast to dollar-based exchange of goods and
services, simply don’t work on a fair market basis. The study revealed
that social exchange is based upon the meaning and interpretation of the
social actions rather than on the objective value of those actions.
That includes positive versus negative behaviors, compliments versus
insults, rewards versus punishments, and helping a colleague versus
hurting a colleague.
Keysar said, for example, that if you’re kind and let someone go in
front of you, that driver may be considerate in response. But if you cut
someone off, guess what? That person “may react very aggressively, and
this could escalate to road rage.” The same rules operate in work
Another experiment, using money as the exchange in a game, showed
that taking quickly escalated as players became increasingly greedy over
repeated exchanges. In a companion money experiment, the study
confirmed that the act of taking inevitably has a far bigger impact on
people’s responses than the act of sharing.
- Generosity is rewarded, but there is a tendency on the part of the recipient for it to weaken and sputter out.
- Acts of taking have a far bigger impact on people’s responses than acts of sharing.
- Taking escalates negative actions quickly–proportionately faster and larger than giving.
- Relationship exchanges and responses, both positive and negative,
are based largely on the personal interpretation of the actions, rather
than the objective value of those actions.
Some work implications:
1. Rewarding generosity.
—Overtime work to achieve boss’s goals will be rewarded
(however, continual overtime can be taken for granted, and lose its
–Donating resources and time (occasionally) to colleagues will ingratiate you to them, making reciprocal rewards available.
–If you want support for your good deeds, you’ll need to interpret the deed to the relevant persons and self-advocate.
–Significantly effective and “useful” hierarchical and peer relations require a personal reputation of liking and respect.
2. Acts of taking.
–Refusing to support a colleague’s project can result in lack of
support for your project, even when the person sees your project
–Critical and negative feedback may do more harm to your
relationship than good. Be very cautious, contract to give critical
feedback, and match the negative feedback with the positive.
3. Escalating negative acts.
–Never, never burn your bridges, it’ll always cost more and more.
–If you have an image problem and people don’t think well of you,
better to demonstrate your positive qualities in a new setting where you
don’t have to overcome so much baggage.
–Loss of trust may be difficult, even impossible to repair.
4. Exchanges tied to interpretations.
–Rewards won’t be granted solely on the basis of your deeds and
generosity no matter what the actions. Personal interpretive and
advocacy strategies are needed to “grease” the relationship.
–Interpret your repayment of generosity to the original giver. He or she may not otherwise understand.
–People trust their first impressions, whether of taking or giving. After the first impression, changes are difficult.
–Make self-advocacy the rule, not the exception.
There you have it: street smarts par excellence! Hope it helps.
Boaz Keysar, Converse, Wang and Epley, (2008) Reciprocity is not give and take. Psychological Science, V.19, N.12.
Photo: Flickr, by Manoj Trikila