True Friendships Are Communistic Not Capitalistic

Reciprocity and the economics of close relationships.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

Both psychologists and evolutionary biologists have had a long love affair with economics. But like many infatuations, this particular love affair has occasionally led us astray. 

Economic models have been very successful in understanding important financial phenomena such as the relationship between market prices and supply and demand. So, first flirtations with economics often assume that market principles can help us understand how people exchange goods and services with everyone – not just the grocer and the appliance salesperson, but also our coworkers, neighbors, friends and lovers. 

One principle embraced by economically oriented psychologists and biologists is reciprocity: If you do me a favor, I will feel compelled to return that favor. A broader theory in social psychology assumes that people judge their relationships according to principles of equity: I will value our relationship to the extent that what I get out has an equal value to what I put in. 

From an evolutionary perspective, reciprocity is often presumed to explain cooperation between people who do not share common genes. In a dog-eat-dog world, helping my brother promotes the survival of someone who shares my genes, so it doesn’t pose a puzzle. If I help someone to whom I am not related, though, that could enhance my fitness only under more limited circumstances: If we reciprocate goods and services over a prolonged period of time, and if I can expect him to help me when I am in need.

This week, I have been reading a book by anthropologist Dan Hruschka, Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Relationship. Hruschka makes a powerful argument that human friendship is not, in fact, based on reciprocity. 

The book is impressive in integrating ideas and research findings from anthropology, evolutionary biology, and psychology. Hruschka searched the anthropological archives for evidence of friendship in other human societies, looking carefully at 60 societies chosen to represent the diversity of small scale societies from different corners of the globe. (See figure below.)

From Hruschka book reviewed here, used with permission
60 cultures in Hruschka's survey of friendship
Source: From Hruschka book reviewed here, used with permission

He describes the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert, for example, who practice a system called hxaro, which involves gift-giving and mutual aid between friends (and was described by Polly Wiessner, 2002). Hruschka also describes the Maasai system of gift-giving, which is called osotua (described by Lee Cronk, 2007; and elaborated in a later paper by Aktipis, Cronk, & Aguiar, 2011), and the Kula ring relationships formed by residents of the Massim islands in New Guinea (described by the legendary Bronislaw Malinowski in 1920). 

Based on his extensive research, Hruschka concludes: “close friends violate many of the rules proposed for maintaining reciprocal altruism. Close friends eschew strict reciprocity…” 

If friendships aren’t about reciprocity, though, what are they based on? Hruschka argues the operative principle is instead need. In the Maasai osotua system, I will give to a friend based solely on that friend’s need, and not expect repayment. Indeed, Maasai think it is crude to even bring up the notion of debt or repayment with reference to these friendly relationships.

Several decades ago, social psychologists Margaret Clark and Judson Mills pointed out explicit exchange only characterizes some of our relationships, and not others. If a coworker is making a run to the local sandwich shop at lunchtime, and asks if you want anything, it is perfectly appropriate for you to give them $5.50 if that is what your sandwich costs. If they were to say, "No, it’s on me,” you would likely feel the need to reciprocate, by buying the coworker an equivalent sandwich tomorrow. But if you are dating someone, and they surprise you by bringing you your favorite sandwich, offering to pay them $5.50 would send them a message that the relationship is not going so well. Clark and Mills labeled relationships between casual acquaintances, in which people keep an account of what they put in and what they get out, exchange relationships, whereas more intimate relationships they dubbed communal. In communal relationships, there is no strict accounting, and benefits flow “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs,” to borrow a line from Karl Marx. 

It is not that there is no reciprocity between friends, or that we don’t notice if a relationship becomes terribly imbalanced. It is instead that real friends do not keep careful accounts of what they do for another. Furthermore, counting or paying for benefits, which are completely appropriate in dealings with a grocer, are usually inappropriate in close friendships. My friend Steve Neuberg and I have eaten lunch together for over a decade now, and we do in fact take turns paying for those lunches. But neither of us ever remembers whether this week’s bill is vastly more expensive than last week’s, or whether the other one always chooses the most expensive item on the menu. In fact, neither of us can ever remember whose turn it is. 

My colleague Athena Aktipis has worked with Lee Cronk on the Maasai osotua system, and when I asked if she had any advice about friendship from an evolutionary perspective, one of her suggestions was, “If your friends are in need, help them. If you're in need ask your friends (risk pooling is part of the function of friendship).” Hruschka’s review of friendship around the world suggests that this is good advice even if you’re not a Maasai. It seems that, no matter what society you live in, friendships work better following the rules of socialism and not capitalism.

I've explored the different economic rules that apply to different relationships in a book with Vlad Griskevicius: The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think (which I described briefly in The evolved wisdom behind our seemingly stupid decisions). 


Hruschka, D. J. (2010). Friendship: Development, ecology, and evolution of a relationship. Berkeley: Univ of California Press

Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013).  The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  New York: Basic Books

Aktipis, C. A., Cronk, L., & de Aguiar, R. (2011). Risk-pooling and herd survival: an agent-based model of a Maasai gift-giving system. Human Ecology, 39(2), 131-140

Clark, M. S., & Mils, J. (1993). The difference between communal and exchange relationships: What it is and is not. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 19(6), 684-691

Cronk, L. 2007. The influence of cultural framing on play in the trust game: A 

Maasai example. Evolution and Human Behavior 28 (5): 352 – 358

Malinowski, B. (1920). 51. Kula; the circulating exchange of valuables in the archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea. Man, 20, 97-105

Wiessner, P. (2002). Hunting, healing, and hxaro exchange: A long-term perspective on! Kung (Ju/'hoansi) large-game hunting. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23(6), 407-436