If the world is a competitive place and everyone’s acting in their own best interest, then why do people do things for each other? The answer seems simple: Even in a harsh environment, it pays to cooperate. “You scratch my back, I scratch yours.” Animals help each other to receive help in return and presumably, the same norm of reciprocity applies to human beings as well.
But if that’s true, then why is it that we do things for people who can’t possibly return the favor, as when parents take care of severely disabled children? These kinds of cases motivated psychologists Margaret Clark and Judson Mills in the 1970s as they sought to understand the norms that govern interpersonal relationships.
They created a framework based on the concept of “communality”—the manner in which we give and receive “benefits”. A benefit, here, means anything that can be exchanged in a relationship—gifts, caretaking, favors, money, and so on—and Clark and Mills proposed that the way people exchange benefits depends on the type of relationship.
In exchange relationships, they proposed, partners give benefits with the expectation of receiving benefits of comparable value in return. Among strangers, acquaintances, and business colleagues, both partners keep track of each person’s contributions in order to ensure equity. When one person provides a benefit, it creates a debt that must be repaid in order for balance to be restored.
But in a communal relationship, they argued, the opposite is true. Both partners are “noncontingently responsive” to the welfare of the other person. With parents, children, spouses, and close friends, you don’t keep track of who’s done what. Instead, you simply seek to enhance the other person’s welfare, responding to their needs and desires.
The distinction between exchange and communal relationships has proved to be a useful framework for studying the exchange of benefits in relationships. Research has found, for instance, that if one partner in an exchange relationship gives benefits that aren’t reciprocated—let’s say one person always buys the drinks and the other person never returns the favor—the giver feels exploited and begins to dislike the freeloader. But this kind of tit-for-tat reciprocity isn’t always appropriate. If favors are quickly repaid in a communal relationship, the giver is actually less happy because it sends the signal “this is a quid pro quo relationship”.
Research has found that one of the hallmarks of high-quality intimate relationships is that they are communal. In marriages, for instance, couples who have a more communal relationship are happier. Couples often fall short of this ideal—they may be unresponsive to the other person’s needs or engage in scorekeeping—and when this happens, relationships become less happy.
More recently, researchers have studied not just how relationships differ in their level of communality, but also how individuals vary from one to the next in their level of “communal orientation”. People high in communal orientation take other people’s feelings into account, give credit where credit is due, and make a point of treating others fairly.
But as pure as their motives are, new research shows that even when they don’t require benefits from the other person, communally oriented individuals do receive internal benefits that motivate the behavior: These natural givers have higher self-esteem, experience greater satisfaction and love in their relationships, and enjoy a greater love for humanity in their lives. Kindness, it turns out, may be its own reward.
1. Clark, M.S. and Mills, J. Clark, M. & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 12-24.
2. Clark, M.S., & Waddell, B. (1985). Perceptions of exploitation in communal and exchange relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2, 403–418.
3. Buunk, B.P., & Van Yperen, N.W. (1991). Referential comparisons, relational comparisons, and exchange orientation: Their relation to marital satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 709–717.
4. Clark, M.S., Lemay, E.P., Graham, S.M., Pataki, S.P., & Finkel, E.J. (2010). Ways of giving benefits in marriage: Norm use, relationship satisfaction, and attachment-related variability. Psychological Science, 21, 944–951.
5. Buunk, A.P., & De Dreu, C.K.W. (2006). The moderating role of communal orientation on equity considerations in close relationships. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale, 19, 121–144.
6. Le, B.M., Impett, E.A., Kogan, A., Webster, G.D. and Cheng, C. Le, B., Impett, E., Kogan, A., Webster, G., & Cheng, C. (2012). The personal and interpersonal rewards of communal orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 694-710.