Reciprocity schemes

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Reciprocity schemes

(Estimated reading time: 3 min, 44 sec)

Is there more to know about relationships and power games?

Many years ago, I read Eric Berne’s book “Games People Play”. It showed a new way of looking at relationships between people. This theory explains a lot and clarifies a lot of the dynamics at work in relationships. But there was still more to discover. For a long time, I asked myself,

“If the effects of certain power games are so devastating, why is it so hard to stop them?”

I tried to give myself answers: It is difficult to give up a habit — gambling, refuse to give in, etc. But all of these hypotheses explain only some aspects of the problem. There had to be a deeper and more general explanation. And one day I found what I think it is the solution:

"Hooks"; acrylic painting by Aurora Mazzoldi. An example of psychological game
“Hooks”: acrylic painting by Aurora Mazzoldi. An example of psychological game.


Reciprocity means that people feel obliged to give back (reciprocate) what they have received from others. If I play tennis and my opponent hits the ball at me, I feeI I have to hit it back. If someone gives me a gift, I must give him a gift. And if someone wrongs me, I think I have to repay. Why?

The Influence of education

The answer could may lie in our upbringing. The child learns: “if someone greets you, you have to respond… if someone gives you something, you have to thank them, and then you have to give something back… if you don’t, you are ungrateful, a terrible child, an asocial person, etc.”

So, is this kind of education bad and should there not be reciprocity? If we ask ourselves this question, we have lost sight of the real problem:

The problem should not be reciprocity, but that it seems obligatory.

I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a pleasure (rather than a duty) to return a greeting, or return a gift, or even a simple kindness? Why should relationships between people follow a coded pattern?

But what would be the difference? A lot! And it would be the difference between a free, conscious and loving act and an obligatory act, done to avoid feeling guilty. Can you see the difference?

Negative reciprocity

This is not a parenting issue. Almost no parent tells a child: “If someone hits you, you have to hit them back”. So, children do not feel guilty if they run away instead of returning the blow. And, in this case of lack of reciprocity, nobody considers them ungrateful, nor terrible children, nor asocial.

Negative reciprocity is not allowed in our society.

The rule is:

  • “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other as well.” — [1]

But did Jesus Christ mean only to turn the other cheek, or did he also suggest that it is possible to be free of reciprocity?

Personally, I believe that this phrase does not prescribe a different scheme of reciprocity (instead of the old “eye for an eye”, the new “turn the other cheek”).

I believe it shows that we can be active, rather than reactive and mechanical, in the relationships between people.

[1] Matthew 5:39 (KJV)

Trapped in a scheme

Since I used the term “schemes of reciprocity,” let me try to explain what they are.

As we have seen, positive reciprocity obligates us to return the gift received, while negative reciprocity obligates us (morally) not to return what we have received. What’s the moral? In both cases, we feel obliged to act in a certain way, to follow a certain pattern. Well, it is precisely that pattern that gives rise to reciprocity schemes.

Psichological Power games

Many of Aurora Mazzoldi’s introspective paintings depict psychological power games.

If we take, for example, a detail from the painting “Mother1. Possession” we can see the interaction between a mother and her son. The mother considers her son as a possession and has a restrictive attitude towards him. The son who, at least theoretically, has the possibility to get out of this relationship, stays there to be limited. What keeps him in the game? If the child wanted to get out, he should:


And this is very difficult. The son feels protected: “You give me your protection and I accept that you limit me”. This could be a rule of the game. But how do we get out of it? Reciprocity gives us the key: we have to break it.

Mazzoldi-Reciprocity Schemes; Mother1-Possession; detail; acrylic painting on canvas
Mazzoldi, a Reciprocity Pattern, Mother 1 — Possession. Detail. Acrylic on canvas.

An experiment without reciprocity

So far, we have presented the theory. Now we can see how to put it into practice. Imagine that you want to end a relationship with someone. Visualize that person realizing that there will be no rmore eciprocity.

How do you feel? Do you feel a sense of emptiness? This feeling prevents you from getting out of the power game. You can tell yourself that you will be fine on your own, that you will have everything to gain by breaking the relationship, etc. But there is a price to pay, there is something to interrupt, and there is a void to feel. Closing in, trying not to think, does not help us. Only when we ACCEPT to stop the mutuality, will we be free.

This brings us into reality and helps us to make choices. We know what the price to pay is: the power (real or aperceived) we will lose by breaking the pattern. So, we can also consider more moderate options, such as that of interrupting only one type of reciprocity (a game we don’t like anymore) and, perhaps, keeping the rest of the relationship.

The book “The Power of Targeted Choices” by Luis Pisoni and Aurora Mazzoldi provides further information on this topic in “Reciprocity and Reciprocity Schemes” (pages 177-180),

  Luis Pisoni