Tit-for-tat, Played Out



Reciprocity, whether returning either a favor or a bad deed, apparently is wired into the human psyche (see Jonathan Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis).  If someone gives us a gift or a favor, we are conditioned to reciprocate.  That’s why we get free address labels and greeting cards in the mail  from people who want our money.    There is also an upside to reciprocation that occurs when starting with a no-strings-attached good deed or compliment.  Good begets good, positivity begets more positivity, resulting in an upward spiral of emotional goodwill and gratitude. “I like your dress.” “Thanks, I like your shoes!” “And you’re so smart…” etc.

But what about reciprocity with regard to bad deeds?

Humans are also inclined to reciprocate insult or injury.   You say something bad about me and I say something bad about you.   In fact, to some degree, this kind of negative reciprocity helps maintain social order.  Wrong-doers are kept in line using reciprocity  (punishment or condemnation), which actually has enabled the growth of large, cooperative social groups.

So, is that always the right thing to do?  Eye for an eye since vengeance enables the existence of our social order?

The problem with reciprocity is that both slights and concessions alike can be subject to interpretation.  I might mistake someone’s comment for my “interesting” apparel as a compliment even if it was not intended as such.  However,  if I return a compliment instead of another insult, I am not creating harm.  I may even be creating goodwill where there was once cynicism or contempt. 

Conversely, I may mistake a benign or generous gesture as an insult or injury.  My sister may offer to loan me money.  I might take offense if I believe she’s implying I can’t take care of myself, when her intent was to make sure I didn’t have financial worries.  In this case I’m creating animosity out of nothing, or worse, out of a good intention.   If I get angry, I may even tell her I know her intentions better than she knows them herself.  I get extra points for being particularly obnoxious and arrogant.

I could feel so certain of the fact that “she started it” and feel justified in my actions.  I might even be right.  But this argument evokes memories of playground politics for which I can’t help but feel embarrassed by on my own behalf.  Additionally, every situation tends to have many possible interpretations, and  the consequences and possible repercussions cannot always be completely identified.  For example, I tend to make decisions based on what I think (Myers-Briggs J type), but sometimes a feeling-type approach (F type) is actually a better choice.  I might get into a huge argument with an F about a decision, and we can both be right. It’s a matter of interpretation and priority.

Misunderstandings can easily occur between loved ones with regards to our five love languages.  My partner may show love by giving gifts, but I may perceive love by how much time we spend together.  Neither of us is right. We have different perceptions and perspectives.  These differences can be used to create blame and conflict when there is nothing but good intentions and love from both parties.

I have also written recently about how it is also human nature to be hypocritical.    So, imagine now that I am the recipient of a slight or insult that I myself am guilty of (hypocrisy) and now I indulge my tendency to reciprocate and take revenge on the other.  For example, I might view my partner’s gifts as indulgent and unloving and then withdraw and withhold what makes him feel loved.  I might feel perfectly justified and certain that he’s intentionally neglecting me but simultaneously blind to how I am purposefully now neglecting him.   Therefore, I misinterpreted (or had a different perception of) what was actually a good intention and converted it into blame, anger, and conflict.  How am I doin’?  Sad to say, I’m in good company.

As logical as this may seem in the blogosphere, unfortunately it is our unconscious nature to be hypocrites and then exacerbate our hypocrisy by reciprocating perceived wrongdoing.  So, we can maybe just give into our base tendencies and indulge in contempt, gossip, judgment, and lack of forgiveness while blaming the other.  Or we can try to have self-awareness and forgiveness of our shared imperfect human nature. 

It’s impossible to completely avoid hypocrisy or feelings of vengeance and judgment.  But I can be more aware of these normally unconscious tendencies and make a choice about which direction to take them.  For me, a huge red flag is certainty.  The more certain I feel, the more likely I am to be indulging in hypocrisy and the less likely I am to be open to someone else’s perspective.

I do feel this hypocrisy awareness has allowed me though to use reciprocation differently:  I am more likely to choose a forgiving interpretation of others’ behavior since I hope they will reciprocate and choose a forgiving interpretation of mine.  This, dear friend, is a gift worth giving.