What is reciprocity?

The word ‘reciprocity’ is defined as – the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit and has its origins in the Latin word, reciprocus, which simply means moving backwards and forwards.    You have reciprocal trade agreements where countries agree on tariffs etc that are mutually beneficial and you even have reciprocal tools. Reciprocity is widely recognised as an important feature of successful co-operation but how does reciprocity between ordinary people actually work?


It’s reasonably easy to see how a negative version of reciprocity works. Consider the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ – revenge – tit for tat – it has many names but it is always the same impulse almost as if there is some hidden balance that needs to be maintained.  Revenge solves nothing of course – but it is very much a natural instinct so instead of simply dismissing the impulse, perhaps we ought to look at how we might more productively employ it to strive to redress the balance in the world.

Our natural impulses are often allied to adaptive instincts that have helped us survive and develop as a species.  And this striving for reciprocity  would appear to be deeply rooted within us and, like any instinct, is neither good nor bad in itself – only in its application. If we look at our instincts as if they are  tools that we can employ to help us survive and develop in the world, rather than tie ourselves up in knots either suppressing or exalting these naturally occurring impulses,  then perhaps we can see more clearly how we might use them.  They are wonderful things and problematic – like any tool.  Even a humble hammer is all about application – it is enormously useful and – literally – constructive, if you want to hang a picture or build a cabinet or a wall but in other circumstances it can also be used to destroy or kill.  The solution is not to get rid of hammers but make sure we use them properly.  Just like our instincts.

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