Devotional, The Norm of Reciprocity: Repaying Evil with Good, by Donna Elkins

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The Norm of Reciprocity: Repaying Evil with Good

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.  1 Peter 3: 9 (NIV)

Communication and psychology researchers commonly discuss a social convention called the norm of reciprocity to explain human interactions. This convention is based upon the idea that people are naturally and neurologically compelled to respond to others in like kind. For instance, if someone helps you, you feel compelled to return the favor later. If someone smiles at you as you walk down the street, you are likely to smile in return. A conclusion from years of self-disclosure research is that when one person shares something personal about himself, the odds increase that the other person will reveal similar levels of personal information.

The norm of reciprocity is even used by marketers to manipulate the behavior of customers. If potential buyers feel they have been gifted or favored in some way (with free products or free trials), then they are more likely to buy a product later as a way of returning the favor.

However, this norm of reciprocity also relates to the desire to see antisocial behavior punished, or to return negative communication in kind. If someone does not smile at you as you enter a room, then you are far less likely to smile at them. Likewise, if you are in an argument with someone who raises his voice, you are more likely to yell as well. Because of this strong social norm to which we are prone, the New Testament writers caution multiple times to remember that Jesus taught Christians should approach others differently, not returning in kind.

As Peter says in the verse above, we strive not to repay evil with evil or insult with insult.  This directive is repeated in two other places:

Romans 12:17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone (NIV).

1 Thessalonians 5:15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else (NIV).

Jesus originally expressed this sentiment in Matthew 5: 39 with his direction to “turn the other cheek” when someone insults you.

Breaking the norm of reciprocity counteracts our human inclination and social conventions, but it can result in de-escalation of conflict and stronger relationships. In the end, it can communicate that we are a unique and separate people of faith.

Reflection: Are there situations or individuals with whom you are most likely to engage in the norm of reciprocity? How have these interactions built positive or negative relationships with others? How could you react counter to the norm of reciprocity in your next interaction?

Today’s Challenge: As you go through your day, notice how often you reciprocate responses to others, whether that is in passing, when driving, or in conversation. Try to break the norm of reciprocity at least once and see how that makes you feel.

  • Donna M. Elkins, Spalding University

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