Reciprocal altruism in psychology

Reciprocal altruism or reciprocity in psychology is defined as the tendency of people to return favors. While reciprocal altruism is observed in kin relationships, it’s common in friendships. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that friendships and other non-kin relationships are based on reciprocal altruism.

Consider the following scenario:

It was the birthday of Monica’s coworker. It’d been four years now of them working together. Previously, they just used to greet each other on their respective birthdays. But this year, Monica’s coworker gave her a gift on her birthday. Monica felt compelled to the same for her, even though she’d never done it before.

When someone does a favor for us, why do we feel the urge to return it?
Why are we likely to help those who’ve helped us before?
Why do we buy gifts for those who do the same for us?

Reciprocal altruism

One should expect altruistic acts from one’s immediate family- one’s closest genetic relatives. This is because by helping each other survive and reproduce, a family is essentially helping its shared genes to successfully pass on to the next generation. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.

But what explains altruism outside of the family?

Why do people form close bonds with those who’re not related to them?

The psychological phenomenon called reciprocal altruism is responsible for this. Reciprocal altruism is nothing but mutual benefit. We form bonds with people and help them so we may get helped in return. Friendships and relationships simply can’t exist without the prospect of mutual benefit.

reciprocal altruism psychology cartoon

When I say mutual benefit, this benefit doesn’t necessarily have to be a material benefit. Benefits can come in all shapes and forms ranging from material to psychological (such as companionship).

Origins of reciprocal altruism

During most of our evolutionary history, hunting was an important activity for procuring food. But success in hunting was unpredictable. One week a hunter would obtain more meat than required, and another week he’d acquire nothing at all.

Add to this the fact that meat can’t be stored for long and is easily spoiled. Our hunter ancestors, therefore, could only survive if they somehow ensured a continual supply of food.

This generated selection pressure for reciprocal altruism, meaning those who had mutual altruistic tendencies were more likely to survive and out-reproduce those who did not have such tendencies. 

Those who were helped- helped others in the future. Therefore, altruistic tendencies are widespread amongst today’s humans.

Reciprocal altruism is found in the animal kingdom too. Chimpanzees, our closest cousins, form alliances to boost their chances of survival and reproduction. A dominant male-male alliance in chimps is likely to out-reproduce other males.

Vampire bats that suck cattle blood at night don’t always succeed. It has been observed that these bats provide regurgitated blood to their ‘friends’ when they’re in dire need. These ‘friends’ are bats who had given them blood in the past. They form close associations with each other, even though they’re unrelated.

Shadow of the future

Reciprocal altruism is likely to occur when there’s a large shadow of the future. If the other person thinks they’ll be interacting with you frequently in the extended future, then they have an incentive to be altruistic towards you. They expect you’ll be altruistic to them in the future as well.

If the other person thinks they won’t be interacting with you for long (i.e. a small shadow of the future), then there seems to be no point in being altruistic. Hence, friendships are less likely to occur when there’s a small shadow of the future.

This is one reason why most friendships in schools and colleges happen at the beginning of the academic year, and not when the course is nearing its end.

In the beginning, students seek other students who might benefit them during the course. There’s simply no point in making friends when you’re hardly going to interact in the future.

If it looks like a friend is going to be altruistic towards you beyond college, you’re likely to form a lifelong bond with that friend. If a friend has helped you a lot in the past and so have you, you’re likely to form a lifelong friendship. It’s because you’ve both demonstrated your respective commitment to reciprocal altruism.

We can say the same of romantic or even business relationships. It usually takes time to establish that level of mutual trust before you can live or work together.

When there’s no future to look forward to, chances of reciprocal altruism diminish. It all revolves around mutual benefit.

Why relationships break down

If we see reciprocal altruism as the glue that binds relationships together, it follows that relationships will break down when there’s no reciprocal altruism. It may be that one partner takes more than they give or they give nothing. Or it may be that both partners have withdrawn their respective benefits.

Whatever the reason, the partner who first feels they’re not receiving at least as much as they’re giving (the more the better), is likely to initiate the break-up.

We have psychological mechanisms designed to guard us against wasteful investments. We can’t go on investing in people without getting anything in return. It’s not an optimal strategy, and our ancestors who may have had such tendencies probably got wiped off from the gene pool.

To conclude, as much as people want to believe in it, there’s no such thing as unconditional love or friendship. It simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. The myth of unconditional love is most likely the by-product of this human tendency to romanticize love and put it on a pedestal.

Reproduction is central to evolution and love is usually the first step before two people can live together, reproduce, and raise offspring. Believing in unconditional love is a self-deception strategy people use to stay in unfruitful relationships. Just so evolution can get its job done, irrespective of the happiness and fulfillment of individuals.