It seems to make sense to connect principle with the idea of reciprocity when describing it. As with so many concepts linked to us being thoughtful humans, there is a wide range of meaning linked to reciprocity.
It starts with the idea that reciprocity is about kindness. In fact, we can already find the principle of reciprocity in Hammurabi’s Code. Among other guidelines, the maxim “an eye for an eye” is stated in it. It is a case in which the principle of reciprocity is present but not necessarily positive.
We can also understand reciprocity as a feeling or idea we all have as humans. A feeling implying that we want to repay a kindness we have received. It can be a smile we received, someone opening the door for us or an invitation we’ve received.
Based on this feeling we often find ourselves expecting something to come back. If there is no reply to the smile we offered, we can feel awkward and start to ask ourselves a lot of questions about ourselves or the other. It means that the relationship has been affected in an unexpected way.
That is the moment when confusion about reciprocity kicks in. We have moved from the idea of a principle that exists to the dynamic of how it is experienced.
The reciprocity principle is the idea that we want to repay what we received.
The experience of reciprocity will be built on the dynamic of the feeling or reciprocity which was triggered by an action inviting a reply.
Our ability to shape either the triggering action or the reaction to that trigger is one of the main principles we can use to influence others. Robert Cialdini described it as one of 6 principles in “Influence: Science and Practice”
It still doesn’t make it obligatory that the reaction we might have wished to happen also happens as expected. It usually doesn’t happen, when one partner in a relationship believes in being superior to the other. It is the same difficulty it one of the partners believes in her ability to control the other. In such situations, the dynamic of reciprocity will rarely develop and even less be maintained.
This doesn’t mean that all of that would be bad. It just is one explanation among many as to when an act of kindness might not be repaid. Another situation is when the social difference or the gift seems to be too large. That was, for example, the case when members of the wealthy elite in ancient Rome were gifting large scale projects to the Romans. These are situations in which the feeling of reciprocity might be there but can only be expressed as gratefulness. This happens especially when the gift is very large and had been given without the expectation to be repaid.
Thus the evaluation of the reciprocity dynamic or its result becomes a way to be confused around the idea of reciprocity. The effectiveness of reciprocity depends on the situation. It is independent of the reciprocity dynamic. It is also independent of the intention linked with gifting something, may it be as simple as a smile.