Social interaction is a complex, yet often subtle, process through which humans transmit information, pursue social goals, and initiate and sustain relationships. Even in the current digital age with its various forms of remote communication, face-to-face interaction is still critical for our social and emotional well-being. One way of characterizing the give-and-take between people in interactions is in terms of the relative changes partners make in their behavior over time; specifically, compensation and reciprocation. Compensation refers to a pattern of balancing or controlling the partner’s behavioral intimacy by moving in the opposite direction. Thus, too much intimacy by one person precipitates avoidance and too little intimacy precipitates approach. In contrast, when a partner’s behavioral intimacy is matched or intensified, the resulting pattern is described as reciprocation. On the verbal side of interactions, reciprocation or matching of self-disclosure seems to be the dominant pattern. Although verbal communication is obviously important, nonverbal communication typically has a greater impact than the verbal on social judgments, interpersonal attitudes, and influence (Patterson 2002). In fact, most of the research and theory on compensation and reciprocation has focused on nonverbal communication. Consequently, this discussion examines the evolution of our understanding of compensation and reciprocation in nonverbal communication.
Reactive Adjustments In Interaction
How and why do people make behavioral adjustments relative to their partners in the course of interaction? The systematic pursuit of this question can be traced back to Argyle and Dean’s (1965) equilibrium theory. Argyle and Dean (1965) proposed that a small set of behaviors, including distance, gaze, smiling, and verbal intimacy, was critical in reflecting the behavioral intimacy or involvement in an interaction. Thus, as the underlying intimacy in a relationship increased, e.g., from initial strangers to acquaintances to good friends or lovers, the comfortable level of involvement also increased. Furthermore, equilibrium theory posited that interaction partners were motivated to maintain a comfortable or appropriate level of involvement over the course of an interaction. When there was a deviation from the appropriate level of involvement, reactive adjustments were predicted that would help to restore equilibrium to a comfortable level.
For example, if Bill approached a little too close to Mary and exceeded her comfort level, she might reduce the overall level of involvement by decreasing her gaze and reducing her smiling. Thus, her reactive adjustment might help to restore equilibrium in their behavioral involvement. In other words, the reduction in gaze and smiling compensated for the too close approach. Compensation might also occur when there was too little involvement for one or both partners. For example, if the seating arrangement required two good friends to sit too far apart, they might compensate for this increased distance by substantially increasing gaze toward one another. Early research on equilibrium theory not only provided strong support for the predicted compensatory adjustments of equilibrium theory, but also expanded the set of relevant behaviors to include touch, body orientation, posture, and body lean (Patterson 1973). That is, compensation might occur in any combination of one or more of these behaviors.
The results of a few studies, however, directly contradicted the predictions of equilibrium theory. Instead of compensating for increased involvement, individuals increased, or reciprocated, the higher involvement of a partner. In hindsight, it is likely that the dominant pattern of compensation found in the research was a product of the relationships (i.e., the lack of them) between the interactants and the types of experimental settings sampled. Typically this research employed confederates initiating a spatial intrusion, high level of gaze, or a touch on their unsuspecting partners in settings where their partners had little control over their immediate environments. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that most people compensated by leaving the setting, turning away, or avoiding gaze in response to the confederate’s increased involvement. This kind of pattern might not be expected between good friends interacting at home or at work. In fact, reciprocation might be more common in interactions between friends, family members, or lovers. Consequently, explaining both compensation and reciprocation required something more than equilibrium theory.
Early research demonstrated that recipients of high levels of nonverbal involvement, such as a close approach and touch, often experienced increased arousal (e.g., McBride et al. 1965). Thus, arousal seemed a likely mediator directing nonverbal adjustments. For example, the arousal-labeling theory proposed that when the partner’s change of nonverbal behavior was sufficient to produce arousal, an emotion-labeling or self-attribution process was initiated (Patterson 1976). Next, if the resulting emotional state was positive (e.g., liking, love, comfort), then the individual would reciprocate the partner’s increased involvement. For example, a close approach, smile, and touch from a good friend would increase arousal, be labeled as liking, and lead to reciprocating the friend’s high involvement. This might take the form of smiling back at the friend and increasing gaze. If similar behavior was initiated unexpectedly by a stranger, arousal would also be increased, but be labeled as discomfort and lead to compensation. Thus, the recipient might turn away and avoid gaze in attempting to re-establish some degree of comfort and control in the setting.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, several other theories also enlisted arousal as a central process directing both compensation and reciprocation across a wide range of relationships (see Burgoon et al. 1995 for a review). In spite of important differences among the theories, common to all of them was the determining role of affective state in directing reactive adjustments, i.e., negative states precipitated compensation and positive states precipitated reciprocation.
Arousal theories improved on equilibrium theory by offering explanations of both compensation and reciprocation. Nevertheless, in terms of explaining the dynamic giveand-take of interactions, they also shared two basic limitations. First, the theories were all reactive in nature. That is, they were limited in explaining B’s reaction to A’s change in behavior and could not address the reasons behind A’s behavior in the first place. Furthermore, some interactions are more or less scripted and do not proceed in a simple, reactive fashion. For example, in initiating a greeting, interactants are not simply reacting to one another, but are following a common script for greetings. A second limitation was that the arousal theories were all affect driven. That is, according to the arousal theories, a person’s affective reaction to a partner’s behavior necessarily determined the behavioral adjustment. Specifically, positive emotional reactions (liking, love, comfort) precipitated reciprocation, whereas negative emotional reactions (anxiety, fear, discomfort) precipitated compensation. Although this certainly happens at times, there are many occasions when we cannot let our immediate emotional reactions determine our behavior. For example, if the boss approaches closely and puts a hand on your shoulder as she asks you to take on another responsibility, you are not likely to pull away (compensation), even though your affective response may be negative.
The important limitations of arousal-based theories suggested that a different approach was needed to explain behavioral adjustments and, more generally, the initiation and development of interactions. The functional model provided such a perspective by focusing on the functions of interactions (Patterson 1983). Specifically, the functional model posited that individuals are not only reactive in relating to their partners, but also proactive in initiating goal-oriented behavior. Thus, patterns of compensation or reciprocation may be initiated independent of a person’s underlying affective reaction to a partner. Nevertheless, affect in the functional model still provides a critical role in the initiation of, and reaction to, patterns of nonverbal behavior as a kind of “default” setting in interactions.
The presence of particular goals, however, such as gaining compliance from another person or deceiving someone, can override the role of affect in determining nonverbal behavior. The proactive manifestation of compensation and reciprocation may be seen in interaction strategies precipitated by interpersonal expectancies (Ickes et al. 1982). For example, in the case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, specific expectancies about a partner may result in reciprocating the behavior anticipated from the partner. Thus, a positive expectancy about a partner increases the likelihood that an actor will initiate the open and friendly behavior expected of the partner. In other words, the actor’s expectation precipitates a behavioral strategy of reciprocation and facilitates the expected behavior from the partner; i.e., a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes, interpersonal expectancies can precipitate a contrasting strategy of compensation. That is, the actor tries to overcome the partner’s anticipated behavior by initiating an opposing (or compensatory) strategy. Thus, if it is important and if the partner’s reactions seem malleable, an actor might be more open and friendly to a presumably cold, unfriendly person. That is, the actor compensates for the unfriendly expectancy by behaving in warmer and friendlier fashion in attempting to alter the expected outcome.
Although the study of interactive behavior is still a major focus of research, in recent years there has been less attention paid to the specific contrast between compensation and reciprocation. Instead, there is greater interest in the social utility of behavioral adjustments, consistent with both the functional approach and an evolutionary perspective on interactive behavior. For example, research indicates that interpersonal rapport is reflected in partners mutually displaying positive expressions, visual attention, and behavioral coordination with one another (Tickle-Degnen 2006). Related research on behavioral mimicry also shows that the automatic copying of a partner’s movements and expressions increases liking and social bonds (Lakin et al. 2003). In fact, both rapport and mimicry are special cases of reciprocation.
The current emphasis on reciprocation in the form of behavioral rapport and mimicry provides additional evidence for the pragmatic value of behavioral adjustments. In interactions with friends, matching and mimicry serve to increase liking and foster stronger relationships. In turn, the increased attachment is adaptive because it facilitates subsequent cooperation and interdependence. Although this form of reciprocation typically happens automatically and outside of awareness, strategically mimicking a partner’s behavior can also facilitate increased liking and influence. For example, individuals who are ostracized or otherwise in need of social support are also more likely to initiate mimicry with their more secure partners (Lakin et al. 2003). Compensation is, however, also adaptive in managing the discomfort of a partner’s inappropriate involvement and in trying to modify a partner’s attitudes and behavior. Thus, these complementary patterns of behavioral adjustment are important, but often subtle, elements in navigating our social environments and managing our relationships with others.
- Argyle, M., & Dean, J. (1965). Eye-contact, distance, and affiliation. Sociometry, 28, 289–304.
- Burgoon, J. K., Stern, L. A., & Dillman, L. (1995). Interpersonal adaptation: Dyadic adaptation patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Ickes, W., Patterson, M. L., Rajecki, D. W., & Tanford, S. (1982). Behavioral and cognitive consequences to reciprocal versus compensatory responses to preinteraction expectancies. Social Cognition, 1, 160–190.
- Lakin, J. L., Jeffris, V. E., Cheng, C. M., & Chartrand, T. L. (2003). The chameleon effect as social glue: Evidence for the evolutionary significance of nonconscious mimicry. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27, 145–162.
- McBride, G., King, M. C., & James, J. W. (1965). Social proximity effects of galvanic skin responses in adult humans. Journal of Psychology, 61, 153–157.
- Patterson, M. L. (1973). Compensation in nonverbal immediacy behaviors: A review. Sociometry, 36, 237–252.
- Patterson, M. L. (1976). An arousal model of interpersonal intimacy. Psychological Review, 83, 235–245.
- Patterson, M. L. (1983). Nonverbal behavior: A functional perspective. New York: Springer.
- Patterson, M. L. (2002). Psychology of nonverbal communication and interpersonal interaction. In Encyclopedia of life support systems (EOLSS). Oxford: Developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO, Eolss Publishers. At www.eolss.net.
- Tickle-Degnen, L. (2006). Nonverbal behavior and its function in the ecosystem of rapport. In V. Manusov & M. L. Patterson (eds.), The Sage handbook of nonverbal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage:, pp. 381–399.