in Business, Creativity, Marketing, Motivation, Music, Philosophy, Psychology, Science

I Scratch Your Back, Someone Else Scratches Mine – The Weird Science Of Indirect Reciprocity

Have you noticed that sometimes you can give and give to certain people only to have them not reciprocate?

It can really bug the hell out of us. But! What we rarely get to experience is that there’s some weird science going on in the background.

Weird Science

What a bunch of boobs.

It’s all a big game of probability and the odds aren’t always what we’d like them to be. Maybe, just maybe there’s still a good reason for us to play the game though.

I worked with a guy who was a really great artist. We got along really well and I helped out with a bunch of stuff. Songwriting, recording, production, marketing, you name it.

Whenever I asked for a favors it was a flat out “No”. I mean like Grumpy Cat levels of “No”.

I was more than a little peeved.

Grumpy Cat

“If looks could kill. I’d stare into a mirror.”

Seeing as though we were making progress I took it and kept on working. It did get to a point where I asked about it and the answer was something akin to: “Don’t do favors if you expect anything back.”


At the time I thought that this was how it was supposed to work. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Isn’t that how the saying goes?

With time and experience I started to understand that sometimes the people we help either can’t or simply don’t want to help us. That’s fine. We don’t have to help them if we feel like there should be some back and forth.

What’s strange is that even though the artist didn’t really help me they actually did. There were people around who took notice of me and my willingness to help.

While I was focused on trying to get this specific person to give me a lift I didn’t notice that others actually were lifting me.

People - Lifting Up

I will not quote Josh Groban.

Another example of this came to me from Hare Krishna. They’ve almost made this into some kind of mini industry.

I was shopping with a friend when a woman gave me a flower. I thanked her but decided not to buy a book.

However, later that day a guy had dropped some papers and without even thinking about it I stepped in to help.

Damnit, her act of kindness had in turn made me more likely to be kind to someone else. Very “Pay It Forward”.

Pay It Forward

If you haven’t, check out Haley Joel Osment’s movie “Sex Ed”. I was impressed.

Since I finally realized how powerful this was I’ve used it much more consciously. I earned a reputation of being a helper and in return more people were willing to help me.

It’s a matter of maths: q > c / b

The “q” stands for the perceived reputation of a person (“do they seem awesome?”). The “c” is the cost (time, money, effort) and the “b” is the benefit.

This is a version of the direct reciprocity: w > c / b

Where the “w” simply stands for the likelyhood of the two people meeting again.

Like with any other game there are no guaranteed wins here. We merely buy more lottery tickets. However, that also raises our odds of winning.

If I scratch your back, you might scratch someone else’s and someone else might just end up scratching mine.

That way everybody’s back gets scratched, ain’t life grand?

Have a kick-ass â‚¢eative day!

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