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Give and Take

 

Explanations > Relationships > Give and Take

The basic system | The equation of reciprocity | Emotional complexity | The wider effect | So What?

 

Life, as they say, is give and take. You put things in and you take things out. The same is true for relationships where a balance of give and take is a sound recipe for long-term satisfaction.

The basic system

Give and take is basically an investment, or 'bucket', system. Sometimes we put things into the bucket and sometimes we take things out. And by and large, the bucket is on average partially full. The classic example is a bank account, where we save for the future and take money out for important purchases. Slightly more complex is our career, where we invest in study and hard work and reap the rewards of pay, promotion and personal fulfilment.

Some systems are always positive, for example the money in your wallet. When it runs out, it cannot be less than zero. Yet if you borrow money, your net wealth can go negative, for example when you owe money to the bank. Debt is a source of much woe, often caused by short-term motivations, which makes it a notable persuasive lever.

The overall behavioral impact of the system is that it encourages people to seek balance. If I take, then I must give in return. In order to take when I am in need, I must first make deposits. We hence seek to keep our accounts positive at least to the degree of an adequate safety net for future needs, with more risk-averse people with good self-control sustaining a larger average credit level.

A more complex give and take is in our relationships, where we give and take time, support and emotion to and from other people.

Giving typically implies generous support that is gratefully received, yet this is not always the case. We can foist things on people or give only reluctantly. And we may be desperate or unwilling to receive. Likewise, taking can range from grateful acceptance of a kind offer to coercive demands. Both give and take can hence be positive and negative in intent and involve corresponding positive and negative emotions.

The equation of reciprocity

The way we behave in balancing give and take is driven by the personal and social need for fairness. Relationships extend this to work through the force of reciprocity, where there is a strong obligation to repay what you are given. If one person owes too much to the other, resentment and conflict may arise and the relationship may consequently fall apart.

An exact balance is not always required as trust acts to make this a 'sloppy' system. The greater the trust, the more negative the balance can become before concern about repayment arises. If I trust you then I will give a lot before I seek to take in return, confident that you will repay me at some time in the future.

In each relationship there is a bucket system of 'social capital' where we make deposits and withdrawals from the bucket. The exact currency is difficult to define but could perhaps be approximated with the formula (emotion x time). If you spend two hours helping someone, and they spend an hour helping you, then, if the emotional exchange is equal, they still owe you an hour.

Emotional complexity

The problem in balancing the books of social exchange is that emotion is a complex variable. If you help me for an hour and I am very grateful, then I may feel a need to help you for three hours doing something in return. Gratitude is hence a powerful driving emotion in social exchange. When I help you, it is your gratitude that is the deposit in my account that motivates you to repay me, not just the fact that I helped you.

Other emotions complicate the situation. For example if I help you and expect you to be grateful, then my feelings of expectation will give me the impression that I have earned a certain amount of social capital, and that my bucket is a little fuller as yours is a little emptier. Yet if you are not that grateful, you will not think you owe me that much. In fact if you did not need or want my help then you may think you owe me nothing. And if you see my help as an intrusion or an attempted 'robbery' in forcing me to owe you in return then your feelings of resentment will tip the balance the other way as you believe I owe you some reparation for the wrong done.

In this way positive and negative emotions have opposite effects on the social capital bucket, and the stronger the emotion, the bigger the effect. If you hurt me in any way, then you owe me. If you help me then I owe you.

Love and hate are enduring emotions that have a big effect on give and take. If I love you then I will give much. Even if you do little in return, I will feel good for having helped you and hence effectively reward myself with good feelings rather than expect things from you. The extreme form of this is unconditional love which, as the name suggests, expects nothing in return. Love can also complicate the bucket when it leads to lower expected reciprocity. My expressions of love for you may make you feel that I expect little. This can cause resentment and anger that results in recriminations that erode the love, effectively 'killing the golden goose'.

Hate is often based in the belief that the other person owes a great deal, which justifies attacks that take much from them. When others refuse to repay what we believe they owe us then our emotions become negative and hence motivate harmful action. Just as unconditional love does not consider what is given, blind hate is not concerned with what is taken. Both can upset the bucket and confuse the social capital account, though each is likely to beget itself. Love very largely creates love and hate mostly creates hate. Love results in much reciprocal giving while hate leads to battles of blow-by-blow taking.

The wider effect

While give and take is important in individual relationships, its broader power is in the creation of society. As relationships deepen and trust increases, we may take from one person and give to another. For example a person in a happy relationship will be kind to others, effectively sharing the social capital gained from their relationship partner.

This is helped by the fact that emotional exchange is often unconscious. When I help you, I may not realize the value I provide and so do not expect much in return. This gives you the scope to help others without emptying the bucket. The overspill thus created keeps society afloat in a sea of social capital.

Social capital can be gained indirectly when others see you helping people and doing good things. When they appreciate your actions in conforming with social norms, their approval effectively acts as putting a few social credits into your bucket. Politicians know that they can make huge gains from widespread public approval, so they seek to champion popular causes and otherwise appear 'good'.

Within this social system there will be net takers and givers: those who take advantage of the trust and looseness within the system and those who pay for the takers. Givers may be unwilling, feeling as the downtrodden poor. They may also be those who have a seemingly deep well and who pay themselves internally, feeling good just for helping rather than needing material repayment from others. It is this intrinsic system that gives society its net positive social capital and which allows us to live together in large groups.

Laws often result from failures of people and society to maintain a balance of give and take. They remind us to give and they take from takers with material and physical punishment. Laws protect the vulnerable from those who would take advantage. They also redistribute wealth from those who have taken more than others.

So what?

To gain social capital remember that you need to gain gratitude or appreciation. It may be a high integrity approach to always do the 'right thing', but if nobody knows then you gain only satisfaction.

To create gratitude, satisfy needs and help people achieve their goals. This can be amplified by getting them to realize the depth of their needs and the urgency of their goals. When they are desperate, even a little help will be gratefully received.

To gain appreciation, ensure witnesses to your good deeds, especially those who will tell others about your noble actions. If there is nobody to spread the word, you may have to do it yourself, though be modest in this as 'blowing your own trumpet' can lose you points.

See also

Reciprocity Norm, Social Exchange Theory, Exchange principle, Give-take close

 

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