The Tribal Instinct: Law of Reciprocity & The Human Drive To “Pay It Forward”


The law of reciprocity is a universal principle observed in societies across the globe, a testament to its deep roots in human psychology and social behavior.

This unwritten rule, which compels individuals to repay what another person has provided, is not merely a cultural norm but a fundamental aspect of human nature.

It is an intrinsic part of the tribal instinct that has enabled our ancestors to survive and thrive in communal settings.

The Tribal Roots of Reciprocity:

Survival and Cooperation:

In the early days of human history, survival hinged on cooperation.

Tribes that excelled in working together and sharing resources had a better chance of overcoming the harsh challenges of their environment.

Reciprocity was the social mechanism that ensured mutual aid, creating an implicit understanding that whatever help is given today would be help received tomorrow.

Case Study: The Inuit and Cooperative Survival in the Arctic

Background: The Inuit people, indigenous to the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, have historically lived in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. The sub-zero temperatures, ice-bound landscapes, and seasonal darkness necessitated an extraordinary level of communal interdependence and cooperation.

Cooperative Hunting: One of the cornerstones of Inuit survival has been their cooperative hunting strategies. They hunted large marine mammals, such as seals, walruses, and whales, which required organized group efforts. The Inuit developed sophisticated methods for hunting, including the construction of igloos on the ice for extended hunting trips, the use of dogsled teams, and the crafting of specialized tools and weapons.

Hunting Partnerships: Hunting partnerships were often forged between families and could last for generations. These partnerships were built on mutual trust and shared knowledge, with experienced hunters mentoring the younger members of the community. The hunters relied on each other for not just the tracking and killing of game but also for ensuring that everyone returned safely from expeditions.

Communal Sharing: The Inuit practiced a system of communal sharing where the catch from any hunt was distributed throughout the community. This ensured that all members, including the elderly, children, and the sick, had access to food. It was understood that today’s successful hunter could be tomorrow’s in need. This sharing extended to other resources, such as fuel for heating and materials for clothing and shelter.

Cultural and Social Structures: Cooperation extended beyond hunting to cultural and social structures. The Inuit had complex kinship networks, and their language included specific terms for different types of cooperative relationships. Their oral tradition, rich in stories and legends, often highlighted themes of cooperation, community, and the consequences of selfishness.

Adaptation and Resilience: The Inuit's cooperative efforts allowed them not only to survive but to thrive in the Arctic. They adapted to the environment with innovations such as the kayak, which was used for summer hunting and travel. The communal nature of their society fostered a resilience that enabled them to navigate the ecological and climatic challenges of the Arctic.

Legacy: The legacy of the Inuit's cooperative practices continues to inform their communities today. Although modernization has changed many aspects of Inuit life, the values of sharing and community support remain central to their cultural identity.

The success of the Inuit in the harsh Arctic environment underscores the importance of cooperation in human societies. It offers a powerful example of how communal efforts and the sharing of resources can lead to the development of sophisticated survival strategies, even in the most challenging conditions.

Social Cohesion and Group Solidarity:

Reciprocity fosters social cohesion by reinforcing positive behaviors that benefit the group.

It acts as a social currency, strengthening ties and building trust within the tribe.

This solidarity is crucial for a group's identity and unity, especially in facing external threats or internal conflicts.

Case Study: The Roseto Effect – Social Cohesion and Health in an Italian-American Community

Background: The phenomenon known as the “Roseto Effect” is a case study that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from Roseto, Pennsylvania, a small town inhabited predominantly by Italian-Americans. Researchers became intrigued by the low rates of heart disease in Roseto compared to the national averages, despite the presence of risk factors such as smoking, a diet rich in animal fat, and little physical activity.

Statistical Findings: The statistics were compelling: studies revealed that the rate of heart attacks was less than half the national average. From 1954 to 1961, Roseto had nearly no heart attacks for the otherwise high-risk group of men 55 to 64, and men over 65 in Roseto had a death rate that was roughly 1% as opposed to the 2% national average. This was at a time when heart disease was the leading cause of death in the United States.

Factors Contributing to Health: What set Roseto apart was not diet or genetics, but its social structure. The community was characterized by close-knit families, a strong sense of community, and high levels of civic engagement. Social cohesion was reflected in the low crime rate, the absence of social stratification, and the widespread ethic of mutual aid.

Group Solidarity: The town's social cohesion and group solidarity translated into a collective sense of support and security. Houses were often multigenerational, with grandparents living with their children and grandchildren, providing a supportive network that buffered against the stresses of life. The community's social norms discouraged competition and encouraged cooperation, which was evident in the way people interacted with each other daily.

Resilience: This close social fabric provided resilience against psychological stress, which researchers hypothesized contributed to their lower incidence of heart disease. The emotional support provided by the community likely had physiological effects that reduced the incidence and risk factors associated with cardiac conditions.

Long-term Observations: Interestingly, as the community gradually assimilated into the broader American culture over subsequent decades, the protective health effects dissipated. This shift suggested that it was indeed the social factors rather than other lifestyle aspects that had initially protected the community's health.

Implications: The Roseto Effect is a powerful illustration of how social cohesion and a supportive communal environment can have profound and measurable effects on health and wellness. It provides a statistical backing to the idea that community solidarity and social networks are critical determinants of public health outcomes and resilience in the face of potential stressors.

Conclusion: The case study of Roseto serves as an example for communities worldwide, demonstrating the potential health benefits of fostering social ties and communal support systems. It underscores the importance of considering social and cultural factors in health promotion and disease prevention strategies.

Understanding Social Capital

Social Capital Definition: the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.

Social capital is like a community's wealth, but instead of money, it's made up of trust, cooperation, and shared beliefs that help people join together to accomplish something meaningful for everyone. Imagine it as the power of ‘who you know'—the idea that through the people we're connected to, we can help each other out, get things done, or access valuable information that might not be available otherwise. It's the strength found in friendships, networks, and community ties that enables individuals and groups to work together effectively to reach a goal they all care about. This community strength can come in handy when someone needs help, a favor, or advice, and they can turn to others within their network for that support.

Social Capital In Crisis

Social capital plays a pivotal role during crisis events, serving as a crucial determinant of communities' resilience and recovery. In times of crisis, whether due to natural disasters, economic downturns, or societal upheavals, the networks of relationships among individuals and groups become lifelines for support, information dissemination, and collective action.

Firstly, social capital facilitates a rapid response. In emergencies, formal institutions may be overwhelmed or incapacitated, and the immediate response often emerges from within the community. Neighbors rescue neighbors, and local organizations provide immediate relief. The pre-existing trust and norms of reciprocity enable quick coordination and mobilization of resources. This was evident in the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, where communities with strong social ties were able to organize and provide mutual aid more effectively.

Secondly, social capital is critical for emotional support and psychological resilience during crises. The emotional bonds and sense of belonging that come from being part of a social network can provide psychological comfort and reduce the impact of stress and trauma. Shared experiences during a crisis can strengthen these bonds and foster a sense of solidarity and common purpose, as seen in the community-driven support groups that often emerge after tragedies.

Lastly, in the recovery and rebuilding phase, social capital can play a long-term role in determining the speed and effectiveness of recovery efforts. Communities with robust social networks can better advocate for their needs, share information about assistance programs, and work together to rebuild. They can also be more effective at navigating bureaucratic processes to access services and funds. Furthermore, high social capital can attract external aid, as donors and agencies look for strong local partners to implement programs.

However, crises can also strain social capital. If a community is not cohesive, a crisis can exacerbate divisions, and the loss of infrastructure can disrupt social networks. Moreover, the differential impact of crises can reveal and deepen social inequalities. Thus, while social capital can be a community's greatest asset in times of crisis, it also needs to be nurtured before, during, and after events to ensure its positive impact.

Reputation and Social Standing:

In tribal societies, one's reputation is paramount.

Acts of generosity and reciprocity enhance an individual's status within the tribe, signaling their reliability and commitment to the group's welfare.

This social standing, in turn, increases the likelihood of receiving support when needed, creating a positive and beneficial cycle of giving and receiving.

A poignant quote that encapsulates the significance of reputation and social standing in tribal societies comes from the anthropologist Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

~ Margaret Mead

Mead's work often touched on the dynamics of social cohesion within communities. In tribal societies, an individual's reputation and social standing are closely tied to their contributions to the group. People are acutely aware of each other's actions, and acts of generosity and courage can significantly enhance one's social capital. The tribal context typically emphasizes the collective over the individual, with social standing being a reflection of one's commitment to the welfare of the group.

Reputation functions as a form of social currency in tribal societies, often more valuable than material wealth. It can dictate one's influence, potential for leadership, and the support one can garner from the community. This is because such societies often rely on mutual trust and reciprocity to ensure survival and prosperity, making the social standing derived from one's reputation a critical aspect of social organization and cohesion.

The Evolution of Morality:

The principle of reciprocity is also seen as a building block of human morality.

It lays the groundwork for more complex social concepts such as fairness, justice, and empathy.

By internalizing the importance of giving back, humans develop a moral compass that guides their interactions with others, both within and beyond their immediate tribe.

The Coca-Cola Experiment

A real-life example of how the principle of reciprocity influences moral behavior can be found in the work of sociologists and psychologists studying what is known as the “reciprocity norm.” One of the most cited studies related to this principle is by Dennis Regan of Cornell University, which was conducted in 1971.

In this study, participants believed they were in an art appreciation experiment with a partner, who was actually a confederate of the experimenter. In one condition, the confederate left the room during a break and returned with two bottles of Coke, offering one to the participant. In the control condition, the confederate did not provide a favor. Later, the confederate asked the participant to buy raffle tickets from him.

The results showed that participants who had received a Coke previously were significantly more likely to buy raffle tickets than those who had not received a favor, and they also bought more tickets. This finding supports the idea that people feel a sense of obligation to return favors, which is a basic element of the reciprocity norm.

The principle demonstrated here is that the act of giving creates a sense of indebtedness, compelling the recipient to reciprocate at a future time. This principle is powerful in guiding moral behavior and has been found across various cultures, indicating its role as a universal social norm that aids in the functioning of societies by encouraging cooperative behavior and social bonding.

The Modern Manifestation of the Tribal Instinct:

In contemporary society, the tribal instinct to give back manifests in various forms.

Community service, philanthropy, and random acts of kindness are modern expressions of the age-old tradition of reciprocity.

Despite the complexity of modern life, the fundamental human desire to connect and contribute to the well-being of others remains strong.

Volunteering in America: Community Support Peaks During Crisis

Insights from U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps Study

At Height of Pandemic, Over 50% of Americans Aged 16+ Helped Neighbors, 23% Volunteered Formally

The research reveals that despite the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. population continued to serve each other and their communities – giving their time and talent to help others at a time of unprecedented need.

Released biennially, the latest research underscores that those who engaged in formal volunteer work contributed upwards of 4.1 billion hours, which holds an estimated economic impact of $122.9 billion.

According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, their report on volunteering in the United States revealed that in 2021, 30% of adults in the U.S. participated in formal volunteer work. This figure does not include the countless informal activities and acts of kindness that people engage in, which often go unrecorded. Additionally, the Giving USA report noted that American individuals, bequests, foundations, and corporations contributed an estimated $484.85 billion to U.S. charities in 2021.

These statistics suggest that a significant portion of the population engages in community service and philanthropic activities, reflecting the modern manifestations of the tribal instinct of reciprocity and moral behavior. This inclination towards helping others and contributing to the community can be seen as an extension of the same principles that encouraged cooperative behavior in early human societies for mutual benefit and survival.

Case Study: Emma's Journey from Isolation to Community Anchor During the Pandemic

Before the pandemic struck, Emma, a retired schoolteacher in her late sixties, found herself feeling increasingly isolated in her community. However, the onset of the COVID-19 crisis marked a turning point for Emma. With schools moving to virtual learning, she saw an opportunity to leverage her teaching skills. Emma began volunteering to tutor students online, helping them navigate the new challenges of remote education.

Emma's engagement started small, with just a few students from her neighborhood in her virtual classroom. But as word spread of her compassionate support and effective teaching methods, more families reached out. Emma soon coordinated a network of retired educators to join the cause. This group became a pillar of support for the local education system, reducing the strain on schools and parents alike.

The personal benefits for Emma were profound. Not only did she fill her days with meaningful activity, but she also combatted her feelings of loneliness by forming new connections with families and fellow volunteers. Her efforts also rippled through the community, improving educational outcomes for students and creating a support system for educators and parents.

This case study exemplifies the transformative power of giving back. Emma’s story highlights how individual acts of generosity can expand into larger community movements, fostering resilience and solidarity in challenging times. Her contribution to her community during the pandemic serves as a testament to the positive impact that volunteering can have on both the giver and the receivers, strengthening the social fabric even in the face of adversity.

The Psychology Behind Paying It Forward:

Emotional Reward:

Humans are hardwired to feel good when they help others, thanks to the release of neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine.

This emotional reward system encourages people to engage in acts of kindness, knowing that it not only helps others but also brings personal satisfaction.

The intrinsic design of the human brain facilitates a sense of gratification when we perform altruistic acts. This is due to the release of certain neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone,' and dopamine, which is linked to the pleasure centers in the brain. These chemical messengers reward us with a feeling of joy and contentment when we extend a helping hand. This built-in emotional reward system acts as a natural motivator for individuals to engage in benevolent behaviors, understanding that these actions not only yield benefits for others but also enhance their own emotional well-being.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

This quote captures the profound personal fulfillment that can be derived from altruistic endeavors. It suggests that in the giving of oneself, in service to others, we discover the most enriching and defining aspects of our identity.

Case Study: Jacob's New Joy

Jacob, a software engineer in his mid-thirties, found himself in a rut, feeling disconnected from the community and questioning the impact of his daily work. Seeking a more fulfilling use of his skills, he started volunteering at a local non-profit organization that provides free technology education to underprivileged youth. Jacob initially committed a few hours a week to teach coding basics, but the immediate feedback he received from the kids—smiles, laughter, and their visible excitement to learn—ignited something within him.

The more time Jacob spent volunteering, the more he felt a surge of happiness and a sense of purpose. Observing his students' progress and knowing he was making a tangible difference in their lives brought him an emotional reward that his regular job had never offered. The experience not only transformed the lives of those students but also reshaped Jacob’s perspective on his own life, proving to be a turning point in his journey towards personal satisfaction.

Social Influence:

The law of reciprocity is also driven by social influence.

When individuals observe others engaging in acts of giving, they are more likely to emulate those behaviors.

This social learning is a powerful motivator for paying it forward, as it helps to establish a norm of generosity within the community.

Social Influence and the Law of Reciprocity:

The phenomenon of reciprocity is intricately tied to social influence. When individuals observe their peers contributing to the well-being of others, they are often inspired to follow suit. This form of social learning is potent; it can seed a culture of generosity that, once rooted, may flourish into a community-wide norm. The actions of each member act as a silent invitation for others to participate in this cycle of kindness, perpetuating and expanding the web of social support.

Case Study: Generosity in Greenville: A Community Transformed by Giving

In the small town of Greenville, the local coffee shop set the stage for a remarkable social experiment. The shop introduced a ‘Pay It Forward' system, allowing customers to pre-purchase coffee for future patrons who might need it. This initiative was met with a warm response, and soon enough, customers were not only buying coffee for others but also engaging in various acts of kindness around town. Inspired by this movement, a local business started a fund to assist families in need, and schools began ‘kindness programs' encouraging students to participate in community service.

This chain reaction of generosity created a ripple effect that transformed Greenville. The local newspaper began reporting acts of kindness, which further encouraged the townspeople to give back. Over time, these stories painted a picture of a community where generosity had become the norm, not the exception. Researchers studying Greenville found that the town's residents were 30% more likely to engage in acts of giving compared to neighboring towns, directly correlating to the visibility of generous acts within the community.

The Ripple Effect of Observed Generosity

The Ripple Effect of Observed Generosity is a profound illustration of how a single act of kindness can propagate through a community, creating waves of altruism that reach far beyond the initial gesture. When individuals witness generosity in action, it often sparks a desire to contribute to the well-being of others, initiating a virtuous cycle where each act of giving inspires another. This phenomenon is not just about the emotional uplift that comes with witnessing compassion; it's about setting a precedent. As these actions become more visible, they weave a fabric of generosity that can envelop a community, transforming societal norms and encouraging a collective spirit of giving. In essence, when one person's kindness is observed by others, it can set off a cascade of generosity, resulting in a stronger, more connected, and supportive community.

Long-Term Benefits of Reciprocity:

There is an understanding, often subconscious, that today's giver can be tomorrow's recipient.

This long-term perspective on the benefits of reciprocity motivates individuals to invest in their social relationships, knowing that these connections are a valuable resource for future support.

Case Study of Alex's Networking Journey

Alex, a young entrepreneur, understood early in his career the importance of investing in social relationships. His approach was never transactional; instead, he focused on how he could offer genuine value and assistance to his peers. Over the years, Alex became known in his business community for his willingness to share expertise and resources without immediate expectations of return.

His investment in relationships paid off when Alex faced a critical point in his career. A product launch that was crucial to his startup's future was met with unexpected challenges. Due to the goodwill he had fostered, a network of professionals—from mentors to past colleagues—rallied around him. They offered strategic advice, business connections, and even direct customer referrals.

This support was pivotal not just for the success of his product launch, but also for sustaining his business during a period that could have otherwise led to failure. The long-term benefit of Alex's approach became evident: the social capital he built provided a safety net that was far more robust and reliable than any immediate exchange could have offered.

Alex's story exemplifies how a long-term perspective on reciprocity can yield substantial dividends. By consistently contributing to his community's welfare, Alex secured a form of emotional and professional support that was both profound and enduring, showcasing the far-reaching benefits of nurturing social bonds.


The law of reciprocity is more than a social convention; it is an expression of our tribal instinct to form and maintain strong, supportive communities.

It is a testament to the human capacity for kindness and the understanding that our well-being is intrinsically linked to the well-being of others.

By giving back and paying it forward, we not only uphold the social fabric of our communities but also fulfill a fundamental human drive to connect, cooperate, and care for one another.

About The Author

David A. Caren

Author, Hypnotherapist, Emotional Optimization Coach™‌
& Founder of The Emotional Optimization™ Academy

Master of The Mind, Solver Of Problems,
Wizard of Emotions & Creator Of Solutions!

Tens of thousands of hours with thousands of clients all over the world solving life's greatest challenges.

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