A Theory of Indebtedness

  • Martin S. Greenberg


The obligation to repay a benefit has long been noted by observers of human interaction. Democritus, for one, offered the following advice in the fourth century B.C..: “Accept favors in the foreknowledge that you will have to give a greater return for them.” Four centuries later the Roman Seneca observed that “He who receives a benefit with gratitude, repays the first installment on his debt.” Although the idea of an obligation to repay benefits has been recognized for centuries, it is only in recent years that its antecedents and consequences have been investigated empirically. The purpose of this chapter is to clarify the theoretical and empirical status of the indebtedness concept, and to illuminate its utility for understanding social interaction. The first section is concerned with defining indebtedness; the second presents hypotheses and relevant data regarding the determinants of the magnitude of indebtedness; the third contains a discussion of the various modes for assessing the magnitude of indebtedness, along with a review of the relevant empirical literature; in the fourth section, indebtedness is distinguished from the related concept of inequity; and in the last section, indebtedness is examined from a cross-cultural perspective.


Cognitive Restructuring Future Time Perspective Gift Exchange Reciprocity Behavior Reciprocity Mode 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin S. Greenberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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