To gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of negotiations, examining the fundamental mechanisms of social interaction is essential. A crucial element in this context is the law of reciprocity, which involves responding to a partner’s behavior with an action of equivalent valence. This principle highlights that interpersonal interactions are shaped by mutual treatment, playing a pivotal role in the dynamics of social relationships.1&2

Reciprocity manifests in two primary forms: direct and indirect. Direct reciprocity involves a straightforward exchange between two parties, where one party’s action elicits a direct response from the other. On the other hand, indirect reciprocity operates on a broader and more intricate level, with individuals contributing to a larger network rather than directly reciprocating to their benefactor. This creates a complex web of reciprocal behaviors within a broader stakeholder group, illustrating the multifaceted nature of reciprocity.3&4

Furthermore, reciprocity can be classified into positive and negative forms, which adds another layer of complexity. Positive reciprocity involves responding to kind gestures or favors with similar acts of generosity, fostering a cycle of goodwill and strengthening social bonds. Conversely, negative reciprocity entails retaliating against those who have behaved inappropriately or unfairly. This form of reciprocity acts as a deterrent against harmful behaviors, helping to maintain balance in social interactions by discouraging exploitation and unfairness.5

The concepts of direct and indirect reciprocity, as well as positive and negative reciprocity, illustrate the multifaceted nature of human social interactions. Despite the common perception that individual actions occur in isolation, research underscores the substantial impact of reciprocity on interpersonal dynamics within society. These underlying mechanisms frequently function subconsciously, underscoring the significance of closely scrutinizing the own behavior.6

But how does the principle of reciprocity influence our negotiations?

One can observe in negotiations how expressions of gratitude or positive gestures from the counterpart help cultivate a productive atmosphere. In these instances, the counterpart might strategically utilize the principle of reciprocity to their benefit, advancing the negotiation process.

This assumption finds support in research, indicating that even in the realm of negotiations, social interaction adheres to the law of reciprocity.7 While reciprocity fosters a conducive atmosphere in constructive negotiations, reciprocal behavior should be approached cautiously in emotionally charged negotiations. Studies highlight the effectiveness of strategically employing positive reciprocity to build trust and strengthen mutual cohesion.2 Conversely, in emotionally charged negotiations, reciprocal behavior can trigger negative impulses and lead to extreme distribution outcomes. Rather than exacerbating the conflict, non-reciprocal behavior has been identified as an empirically effective means of interrupting the conflict spiral.8

At the Schranner Negotiation Institute, we firmly believe that the principle of reciprocity is crucial in shaping the trajectory and dynamics of negotiations. Its adept application can strategically lay the foundation for favorable outcomes and foster mutual trust.

Look out for cues of reciprocity in your upcoming negotiations and leverage them skillfully to your advantage.


1 Gouldner, A.W. 1960. The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25: 161–178.

2 Parks, & Komorita. 1998. Reciprocity Research and Its Implications for the Negotiation Process. International Negotiation, 3(2): 151–169.

3 Nowak, M. A., & Sigmund, K. 2005. Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature, 437(7063): 1291–1298.

4 Schmid, L., Chatterjee, K., Hilbe, C., & Nowak, M. A. 2021. A unified framework of direct and indirect reciprocity. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(10): 1292–1302.

5 Caliendo, M., Fossen, F., & Kritikos, A. 2012. Trust, positive reciprocity, and negative reciprocity: Do these traits impact entrepreneurial dynamics?. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33(2): 394-409.

6 Falk, A., & Fischbacher, U. 2006. A theory of reciprocity. Games and economic behavior, 54(2): 293–315.

7 Esser, J.K., & Komorita, S.S. 1975. Reciprocity and concession making in bargaining. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(5): 864–872.

8 Brett, J. M., Shapiro, D. L., & Lytle, A. L. 1998. Breaking the bonds of reciprocity in negotiations. Academy of Management Journal, 41(4): 410–424.




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