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What Happens to the Value of Favors Over Time?

Like bread or wine? What happens to favors over time?

When it comes to campaigning for the Presidential election, candidates typically stick to a limited universe of reasons for why the American people should cast their votes for them: They tout their proposals, experience, leadership qualities, and legislative accomplishments. But if you watched the GOP convention a couple of weeks ago, you might have noticed several of the headline speakers converging on a very unusual persuasive argument: You owe it to John McCain to vote for him.

This argument attempts to harness the power of the norm of reciprocity, which obligates us to return favors performed for us. In essence, these speakers were arguing that because John McCain has made sacrifices as a soldier and a prisoner of war for our country, we should feel obligated to pay him back for his service by voting for him. For example, after describing in excruciating detail how much pain McCain endured as a prisoner, Fred Thompson said, “Tonight we’re being called upon to step up and stand up with John just as he has stood up for our country.” Similarly, Sarah Palin stated, “And though both Senator Obama and Senator Biden have been going on lately about how they are always fighting for you, let us face the matter squarely.  There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you... in places where winning means survival and defeat means death... and that man is John McCain.”

Perhaps Mike Huckabee was most direct in calling on the electorate to pay back McCain for his sacrifices. He began by describing how “most of us can lift our arms high in the air to signify that we want something. [McCain’s] arms can't even lift to shoulder level, a constant reminder that his life is marked not by what he wants to receive, but by what he's already given. “ Huckabee then told the story of a Little Rock school teacher who decided to take away students desks one day and tell them they could have them back when they could tell the teacher how they earned them. After a day’s worth of incorrect guesses, the teacher finally opened the door, and in marched 27 veterans, each one carrying a school desk. She explained to the children, "You don't have to earn your desks... these guys, they already did.  These brave veterans went halfway around the world, giving up their education and interrupting their careers and families so we could have the freedom we have. No one charged you for your desk. But it wasn't really free. These guys bought it for you. And I hope you never ever forget it. "

Huckabee continues:  “I wish we all would remember that being American is not just about the freedom we have. It's about those who gave it to us. And let me remind those of you, John McCain is one of those people who helped buy the freedom that we enjoy and the school desks we had. It's my honor to do what I can to help him have a desk that he has earned -- one in the Oval Office. “

Although the accounts of McCain’s bravery, service, and sacrifice are certainly emotionally stirring, the events for which he is credited occurred a very, very long time ago. This begs the question, What happens to the influence of favors and gifts as time passes? Are favors like bread in that they become stale over time? Or are they more like wine, getting better and increasing in value with age?

According to Stanford University researcher Frank Flynn, the answer to this question depends on whether you are the favor-doer or favor-receiver.  Flynn suggests that immediately after one person performs a favor for another, the recipient of the favor places more value on the favor than does the favor-doer. However, as time passes, the value of the favor decreases in the recipient’s eyes, whereas for the favor-doer, it actually increases. Although there are several potential reasons for this discrepancy, one likely possibility is that, as time goes by, the memory of the favor-doing event gets distorted; and since people have the desire to see themselves in the best possible light, receivers may think they didn't need all that much help at the time, while givers may think they really went out of their way for the recipient.

To test this idea, Flynn conducted a survey of employees working in the Customer Service department of a large U.S. airline. This particular business context is one in which coworkers commonly exchange favors by helping one another to cover shifts. The researcher asked half of the employees to consider a time when they had performed a favor for a coworker, whereas the other half of the employees were asked to consider a time when they had received a favor. All the employees in the study were then asked to indicate the perceived value of the favor and also to specify how long ago the favor was performed. Consistent with Flynn’s hypothesis, the results of the survey revealed that recipients of the favor perceived it as more valuable immediately after the favor was performed but less valuable as time passed. Favor-doers, on the other hand, showed just the opposite effect: They placed a lower value on the favor immediately after it was performed but then placed greater value on it as time went by.

These findings have implications for our effectiveness in persuading others both inside and outside of the workplace. If you’ve done a favor for a colleague or an acquaintance, that favor will likely have the most impact on that person’s desire to reciprocate within a short period of time following the favor. However, if you’re the recipient of a favor, you need to be aware of the tendency of people in your position to downplay that favor as time goes by. If you fail to recognize the full value of the favor weeks, months, or even years after it has occurred—which Flynn’s research shows is a natural inclination—this may ultimately damage your relationship with the favor-doer. If you are the giver of the favor, you might tend to think ill of the recipient due to his or her reticence to pay back what you have given previously.

So what can be done to maximize the value of the favors we provide if its value might diminish in the eyes of the receiver over time? One way might be to recognize the value of the gift or favor you have provided at the time by telling the receiver that you were happy to help because you know “that if the situation was ever reversed, I’m sure that you would do the same for me.”

A second, more direct strategy would be to jog the recipient’s memory about the value of the favor before making a subsequent request a short time later, which is somewhat akin to the GOP strategy. Of course, when using this information yourself, you should consider carefully the words you choose when taking this approach. Saying something like, “Remember when I helped you out a few weeks ago? Well now it’s payback time!” is clearly destined to fail. But a gentle reminder by enquiring “How useful did you find the report I sent to you?” would be an appropriate communication before you make your request.

Although there’s no universal method of influencing others 100% of the time, I’m certain that understanding all the factors that influence favor valuation is a good start. And if all else fails, just remember one simple rule of favor exchange: Just like you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you’ll definitely catch more favors with a bottle of vintage wine than with a loaf of stale old bread.


Noah Goldstein is a faculty member at UCLA Anderson School of Management.  He is also co-author of the New York Times best-seller Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.