From the time we’re little, we’re taught to reciprocate when we receive a gift. Gifts are typically met with a verbal “Thank you!” or you might remember your mom or dad making you write thank cards. Reciprocating when given a gift isn’t limited to American culture either. Social scientists agree that people in all cultures are raised in the way of reciprocation.
Gifts differ from rewards in that when giving a gift there’s no guarantee the other party will respond in some way. With rewards an “if – then” system is put in place. For example; if you exceed your goals then I’ll reward you with a $100 bonus. There’s not much risk on my part because your failure to exceed your goals means I don’t have to give you $100.
Sometimes we get unwanted gifts, things we’d never buy or ask for, and yet we feel reciprocity tugging at us to return the favor in some way. Savvy practitioners of influence understand this and use it to their benefit by giving you something you may not want knowing you’ll give them something in return. Hari Krishnas were famous for this trick when they’d give unsuspecting people a flower and those same people then felt compelled to reciprocate with a small donation.
All of this is top of mind for me because of a recent business trip to Nashville. A group of us went to BB King’s Restaurant and Blues Club for dinner and some music. When I went to the men’s room there was a man there sitting on a stool near the sinks. As soon as someone went to wash their hands he was handing them a towel and taking a lint brush to their back.
Personally I find the whole set up offensive for several reasons. First, I don’t want some stranger touching me, especially in the men’s room. No matter where it is it’s an invasion of space.
Second, I don’t like tipping people when they’ve not done something worthy of it. To me it’s like ordering something at a counter and just because someone hands you your order they expect a tip. That’s entirely different than a server who hustles for you over dinner or lunch. When someone does something for me that I can do for myself with little or no effort, like handing me a towel, I don’t feel that’s worthy of a tip.
Not only was reciprocity at work in the men’s room, so was consensus because everyone could clearly see money in the man’s tip jar. That starts a battle inside about whether or not to tip because others have already done so. Here’s a hint; the tip jar was probably “salted” meaning the person put some money in to start with, in order to give the impression that others have been tipping and so should you.
One other thing to point out, all of this becomes more difficult when you’re the only one in the restroom. It’s like making eye contact with someone who asks you a question; you can’t pretend they’re not there in an effort to not engage.
Back to reciprocity; we feel the urge to reciprocate because whether or not we asked, the man in the restroom did something for us. I’ll tell you I didn’t tip because the whole set up actually angers me a bit. And yet after describing all of this to you I must admit, it was still difficult! Not only was it difficult for me, it was for others. In fact, when I brought this up later in the night one person in our group said he decided to wait till he got back to the hotel rather than go to the restroom at BB King’s! That illustrates just how powerful the urge to reciprocate can be.
As I share this I recall a similar incident many years ago at a different location. When one fellow in our party came back from the men’s room and told us there was someone in there handing out towels another person emphatically stated how much he dislikes that and that he never tips people who do that. And yet he did that night because someone in our group saw him do it. Again, despite his protests we see how strong the pull or reciprocity can be on any of us!
So how do you combat this psychological phenomenon when you feel the tug of war going on inside of you? I tell you it’s not easy and trying to do so will elicit a lot of thoughts and feelings. You need to ask yourself a few questions:
a. Did I want what the other person gave me?
b. Would I normally tip this person if I didn’t feel compelled to?
c. Does this feel like a ploy to get something or was it a genuine gift?
If you answered no to any of the questions then you need to remind yourself of that and make a choice not to give in to the power of reciprocity. The principles of influence usually guide us into good behavior but not 100% of the time. As I noted before, savvy people understand these principles and will seek to use them against you at times so be watchful and be vigilant if you ever think the principles are being used in an unethical manner.