Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 13: "True Community and the Tyranny of Reciprocity"

A few years ago my friend Mark Love took me out for lunch. As we were standing in line to order, I joked about our innate psychology for reciprocity. That is, the reciprocity dance would require me to call Mark in the weeks after our lunch to return the favor and take him to lunch. If you think about it, it would be very odd if Mark was to call me and take me out to lunch twice in a row. Or how about three times in a row? If I never reciprocate, then Mark just might stop calling me. He might stop wanting to be my friend.

We all know this feeling of "indebtedness," this first step of the reciprocity dance. My wife and I are entertained by some friends at church. We have a great night of food and fellowship at our friends' house. And, the minute we get in the car, we say "We have to make sure to have the Jones' over."

Tit for Tat.

Although reciprocity is great, as friends go back and forth eating out, it can rob much of the fun and spontaneity from Kingdom living. Reciprocity can be a tyrant. Mark argued with me in line that day, humorously calling on me to transcend my innate need to reciprocate. He wanted me to call him for lunch because I truly wanted to, not because of my innate psychological wiring. A wiring we all share.

So, if Kingdom living is not about reciprocity, what is it based on? What should it look like?

The psychologist Alan Fiske (Fiske, A.P. 1992. The four elementary forms of sociality: Framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological Review, 99, 689-723), I think, gives us an answer.

Fiske has done some very influential work on classifying and describing four basic types of social relationships. The four basic types are:

1. Communal Sharing
2. Equity Matching
3. Authority Ranking
4. Market Pricing

In communal sharing, relationships are symmetrical: All parties are treated as having equal value and worth. Generally speaking, a sense of "family" is involved. Work and the consumption of resources is shared equally and no tally or record is kept. Trust pervades.

For example, thinking of my college students, think of two roommates. Roommates in a communal sharing relationship will do the dishes together, or in turns, or any old way. A roommate in a communal sharing relation might, actually, do the dishes a couple times in a row, trusting that their partner will do their part in making living together successful. You assume and trust that your roommate will, when they can, be doing the dishes a different night or, given that the dishes are done, do something else to help like vacuuming. But, overall, no real "record" is kept of who did what and when.

The same goes for the milk in the fridge. One roommate buys it, but the other can share it. No record is kept noting whose milk it is or how much each drinks. The milk is shared.

Much of family life is based on communal sharing. I don't keep a tally of what work my wife has done to determine who works hardest. I also don't ration out milk to my boys.

By contrast, equity matching relationships are based upon reciprocity, fairness, and Tit for Tat. Roommates who have an equity matching relationship (rather than a communal sharing relationship) WILL keep track of chores and the consumption of resources (e.g., "Who drank MY milk?"). Interestingly, conflicts between college roommates often occur when the two parties are confused about what kind of relationship they are in. One roommate might believe they are in a communal sharing relationship (e.g., "What is mine is yours!") while the other thinks they are in an equity matching relationship (e.g., "When I buy MY Dr. Pepper I don't want anyone drinking it unless they ask first!").

(I want to stop and focus on communal sharing and equity matching, but, for completeness sake, here's the quick recap of the other two relationships:

Authority ranking is a relationship that has a hierarchy, with superiors and subordinates. Bosses and employees are good examples.

Finally, Market Pricing is when the relationship is based on wages or some other form of economic exchange. Like paying a maid or a therapist for their services.)

Returning to communal sharing and equity matching.

It should be noted that these types of interactions intermingle in the same relationship. Take housework. Although my family and I share food, we might want to treat housework as an equity matching relation. For example, we might agree not to "share" doing the dishes because one partner often "forgets" to help. Thus, we set up an arrangement where we alternate doing the dishes. Tit for Tat. This is a fine solution because, in some places of family life, achieving a fair balance is most easily achieved via Tit for Tat. The communal sharing dynamic, if laziness is a factor, just might not provide enough structure to keep the work spread evenly. (BTW, this example is real. My wife and I had a communal arrangement about doing the dishes. The problem was I never helped. So, to rectify the imbalance we tried a Tit for Tat deal. We did that for awhile and then slowly went back to her doing the dishes all the time. I'm now waiting for the next round of negotiations...)

Generally, marriages should be dominated by communal sharing. Whenever you start seeing the creep of equity matching in the marriage where spouses "keep track" of stuff (e.g., time with yours friends vs. time with my friends, work about the house, how money is spent, owning stuff like "my" iPod), you know the marriage is heading for rough water. That is, the movement away from communal sharing toward equity matching means that trust is breaking down in the marriage.

I think it should be now obvious in this post that Kingdom living should be dominated more by the communal sharing relation than the tyranny of reciprocity and equity matching. True, parts of Kingdom living, like a marriage, can have equity matching moments. But in the main, the Kingdom should exist as a true community: What is mine is yours. And further, I don't keep track of stuff. Fellowship isn't driven by who last hosted the dinner. Life in the Kingdom of God is more organic and spontaneous.

The best illustration of this dynamic? How about this:

Acts 2: 42-48
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Why, then, do we often fail to live as a true community? Well, there are lots of reasons. Many of them have do to American culture and our ideals of self-sufficency. As self-sufficent, autonomous agents we tend not to share much. We are affluent enough that we don't need to share. Which means that in our churches, since we don't need (economically speaking) community, we move on to the next kind of relationship: Equity matching. But the problem is that equity matching isn't where the Kingdom is located.

I don't have solutions for this dilemma. I just have a diagnosis. And my diagnosis is this: Reciprocity often pulls us away from true community. We are innately wired for reciprocity. Hence, reciprocity is easy and natural. It is our psychological default. Consequently, given the pull of this psychology, the creation of true community (particularly in America) must be intentional. Without intentional strategies to foster sharing and trust, church members will slowly gravitate back to equity matching relationships. But equity matching relationships are not different than relationships in the world; everyone is using equity matching in the world. No, what makes us distinctive is our "family" dynamic, the communal sharing. This kind of witness truly is counter-cultural. It is what makes us a city set on a hill.

On that note, would anyone like to come over and help with the dishes?

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4 thoughts on “Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 13: "True Community and the Tyranny of Reciprocity"”

  1. Beck,
    Fascinating post. I would volunteer my dish-washing skills if you would volunteer to fly me to Abilene. Or wait, is that a kind of reciprocity demand?

    Do you think the elder son in the prodigal son parable falls into a category of misunderstood communal living?

    Oh, and by the way, did your wife really once equate your inpromptu dish-washing gesture with love-making? I heard this story from a friend who took one of your classes.

  2. Teresa,
    Okay, here's the story about sex and washing the dishes.

    One night, driving home Jana sighs about how much there is to in the house. The house was a mess, there was a stack of dirty dishes, and groceries needed to be put up. So, as she is tucking the boys into bed I decide to, well, actually help. So I start on the dishes. After awhile Jana emerges from the boys' room and sees me doing the dishes. Her heart melts out of gratitude.

    So, we stand there doing the dishes together and chatting. She's so grateful for the help (I know you're probably asking: Does this guy ever help his wife?) that at one point she says, "Sweetie, I wouldn't say you doing the dishes is better than sex, but it's close."

    We laugh about this and then I say, "I think I understand. I bet all your friends would say the same thing." So, being an experimental psychologist, I want to do a survey. So Jana gets on the phone and asks a bunch of her friends, all wives of ACU faculty members, the question: "If you had a choice tonight between having sex with your husband or having your husband do the dishes, which would you choose?"

    100% say: "Have him do the dishes."

    At this point, as I tell the story in class, I offer to the students, two hypotheses for this finding:

    1. Women value thoughtfulness over sex.
    2. Or, the typical ACU faculty member isn't really good in bed.

    You can pick which you think is the more reasonable explanation...

    Anyway, its a funny story.


  3. I had a number of incompatibilities with my ex-wife. One was that early on in our relationship I shared my belief that each party should be more giving of themselves than taking, maybe 60/40. I figured miscommunication would make a 50/50 expectation dangerous. Maybe my ex- didn't know what the heck I meant (she was a psychologist), or she didn't trust where I was going with that. In any event she didn't agree. It was one of many red flags I ignored. At least I have attractive and intelligent children.

    Is there any better way to put it than Karl Marx, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs"? I'm sure there are longer ways to put it to make sure this is loving and not tyrannical, but will people put up with this even if it is loving? Maybe God has to be much more involved with this than some imagine.

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