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Honoring the Rule of Reciprocation

A common tendency can make you vulnerable to others.

Key points

  • The “rule of reciprocation” refers to the universal tendency in human beings to feel compelled to reciprocate when given a gift.
  • The rule of reciprocation is so strongly ingrained in people that they can be vulnerable to having this tendency used against them.
  • It's important to learn to distinguish acts of true generosity from actions designed to activate obligatory giving.

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini makes reference to what he considers to be one of the most important yet often unrecognized factors inherent in the art and practice of influence and persuasion, two highly significant aspects of effective communications. Whether we are involved in personal relations, business transactions, politics, sales, education, or any other domain that deals with just about any type of interpersonal transaction, our ability to influence the perspective of others is critical to the fulfillment of our goals and intentions.

Lest we forget, there is a profound difference between “control,” which has to do with having domination or authority over another, and “influence” which has to do with the power to sway or affect change in another’s perspective or behavior. Efforts to control frequently result in outcomes that differ from or may even be the opposite of our intended desires, since most of us have a natural tendency to resist overt efforts from others to control our behavior or beliefs.

Exploring the rule of reciprocation

In his book, Cialdini makes reference to what he refers to as the “rule of reciprocation” which has to do with the universal tendency in human beings to feel compelled to repay or reciprocate when given a gift whether it has come in the form of a material object, a kind deed, or an act of generosity. There is a strong impulse in people from all cultures to repay gifts or favors with a gift of our own to them. This impulse expresses itself in reciprocation to invitations to parties, Christmas cards, birthday presents, or acts of kindness.

This tendency has survived and been present throughout human history because it has survival value for the human species. The noted archaeologist Richard Leakey describes the essence of what makes us human is this system of reciprocity. “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.” And cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox describe our web of indebtedness as the valuable means that allows for the division of labor exchange of goods and services, and the creation of clusters of inter-dependencies that bind us together in highly efficient causal units.

In nearly all cultures, the process of socialization teaches us to share, take turns and give back to all who give to us. We are likely to be shamed or ostracized if we don’t integrate the rule of reciprocity into our behavior. Most of us learn over time to go to great lengths not to be considered a freeloader or a parasite. The rule is so strongly ingrained in us that we can be vulnerable to having this tendency used against us by others who wish to exploit or take advantage of us in some way. We can be seduced by “free samples” to purchase items that we don't really want, or we can be manipulated by unscrupulous salespeople pretending to give us a “good deal." In romantic relationships, we may find ourselves giving out of a sense of obligation if our partner has given us more than we feel we have given them.

Learning to trust our judgment

Learning to trust our judgment when it comes to distinguishing acts of true generosity from actions designed to activate obligatory giving is a process that inevitably involves instances of being overly naive or overly mistrusting at various times. It is often not until reflection after the fact that we become more able to accurately discern the motivation of others’ gifts. And even after years of experience and discernment, there will likely be incidents in which we have misjudged others’ intentions one way or another.

One way to cultivate a keener sense of others’ motivation is to become more mindful of our own (often unconscious) motivations when we feel the impulse to give to another. By simply pausing long enough to self-reflect prior to taking an action of generosity and taking a moment to contemplate questions like:

  • Do I have any expectation of reciprocation from this person in response to my gift?
  • Will I be disappointed, resentful, hurt, or feel bad if they do not reciprocate?
  • Am I truly letting go of this gift or do I feel like I have a right to influence or control what this person does with it? (This is a particularly good question to ask ourselves when we are giving the “gift” of advice!)
  • Is this an obligatory gift? meaning, a gift that is given out of a sense of obligation to another as a result of a gift that I have received from them.
  • Is this gift an expression of a genuine desire to provide something of value to this person?
  • Am I giving this in an effort to diminish or eliminate a sense of guilt that I have for something that I have or haven’t done?
  • Is there an undesirable consequence that I fear I may experience if I do not give something to this person and if so, what is it?

Asking ourselves these questions doesn’t in any way require us to withhold our gifts, regardless of how we answer them. The purpose of this self-inquiry is to become more aware of our unconscious intentions and in the process become more acutely attuned to others’ motivations.

As we begin to trust ourselves to make these fine distinctions, we become more able to give freely and more open to receiving. We learn to refine our sensors around trusting positive reciprocation. In the process, we notice those acts of kindness and true generosity of spirit that set in motion cooperation of the highest order. In so doing, the tendency to control is greatly diminished and is replaced by a growing sense of trust.

The rule of reciprocation is deeply ingrained in our psyche and with thoughtfulness can be refined to work for us in beneficial ways. When we begin to understand the power that is inherent in the rule of reciprocity, the motivation to practice generosity with our time and attention dramatically expands.

This dance of ongoing, reciprocal giving and receiving is a characteristic of all highly successful relationships. When it is fully integrated into a relationship, the motivation that drives each partner is that of “enlightened self-interest." This term refers to the deep understanding and trust that when I give freely, uncoercively, and unconditionally to another, my own well-being is enhanced, regardless of how they respond. It’s the trust that the return to me comes through my act of giving, not as a result of it. And when two people are simultaneously operating from this understanding, there’s no telling what they can create together. The sky’s the limit!

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