Reciprocity schemes

Reciprocity schemes, power games and relationships between people

Mazzoldi, Reciprocity, Mother 1 -Possession, detail,  acrylic on canvas

Many years ago, I read Eric Berne’s book “Games People Play”. It showed a new way of seeing the relationships between people. This theory explains many things and clarifies many of the dynamics working in relationships.  But I had the feeling that there was still something to discover. For a long time, I asked myself:

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

I tried to give me answers: It is difficult to give up a habit – Gambling addiction – Refuse to back down, etc. However, I had the impression that all these hypotheses explain only some aspects of the problem. In my opinion there had to be a deeper and more general explanation. And one day I found what I believe to be the solution:


Reciprocity means that people feel obliged to return (reciprocate) in some way what they have received from others.  If I play tennis and the opponent hits the ball to me, I think I must hit back. If someone gives me a gift, I must give him one myself. And if someone do me wrong, I think I must pay them back. Why?

Influence of education

The answer could be in our education. The child is taught: “if someone greets you, you must respond politely”, if someone give you something, you must thank them and then you must return “, etc. “If you don’t, you’re ungrateful, a bad child, an asocial, etc.”

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


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 for not feeling guilty. Can you perceive the difference?

Negative reciprocity

This is not a matter of education. Almost no parent says to a child: “If someone punches you, you must punch them back”. So, children do not feel guilty if they escape instead of returning the punch. And, in this case of missing reciprocation, they are not considered ungrateful, nor bad children, nor asocial. Indeed, the opposite is true: They are considered good children, they behave properly. Negative reciprocity is, in fact, prohibited. The rule applies:

  • whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. –[1]

But did Jesus Christ only mean that one must turn the other cheek or also suggest that it is possible to get free from reciprocity? Personally, I like to believe that this phrase would not impose a different reciprocity scheme (instead of the old “Eye for an Eye”, the new “Turn the other cheek”). I prefer to believe that it indicates the possibility of being active (and therefore acting in an unusual way), rather than reactive and mechanical, in the relationships between people.

[1] Mathew 5:39 (KJV)


Trapped in a scheme

Since I used the term “Reciprocity Schemes, I will try to explain what they are.

As we have seen, positive reciprocity obliges us to reciprocate the gift received, while the negative one obliges us (morally) not to reciprocate. What’s the moral? In both cases we feel obliged to act in a certain way, that is, to follow a certain pattern. Well, it is just that pattern that I like to call a “reciprocity scheme”.

Power games

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

If we take as an example a detail of the painting La Madre 1 – Il Possesso (the Mother 1 – Possession) we can see the interaction between a mother and her son. The mother considers her son as a property and has a limiting approach towards him. The son who would have, at least in theory, the possibility of getting out from that kind of relationship, stays there to be limited. What keeps them in the game? If the child really wanted to get out, he should


And this is, of course, very difficult. The son feels protected: “You give me your protection and I accept to be limited”. This could be one of the rules of the game. But how to get out of it? Reciprocity gives us the key: we should interrupt it.

An experiment

So far, the theory has been presented. Now we can see how to put it into practice. Imagine you want to end a relationship with someone. VISUALIZE THAT PERSON REALIZING THAT THERE WILL BE NO RECIPROCITY ANYMORE.

How do you feel? Do you experience a feeling of emptiness? That feeling keeps you from getting out of the power game. You can tell yourself that you are going to be well on your own, that if you interrupt the relationship you will have everything to gain, etc. However, there is a price to pay, there is something to interrupt and there is a void to be felt. Closing inwards, trying not to think, does not help us. Only when we ACCEPT to stop reciprocity will we be free.

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

The subject is dealt more completely in the book “Reciprocity – Who is choosing my life?” by Luis Pisoni and Aurora Mazzoldi, in the chapters “Reciprocity” (page 161) and “The Reciprocity Scheme” (page 163).

Luis Pisoni

Italian text