I think a lot of about psychological defaults these days. Partly it’s a function of living in the DC-metro area in the middle of an election year – and partly it’s a function of studying leadership and motivation.

The rule of reciprocity…

Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, is one of the best and most recommended book on the topic of persuasion. It’s worth picking up and keeping it as a reference. Fans of the book will recognize the term “click whirr.” The term refers to when a “cue” is initiated and triggers a resulting action. In nature this might be when baby birds chirp and the mother bird nurtures them. As it turns out, it’s not even necessary for the chirp to come from baby birds. Scientists found that a recorded sound of baby birds chirping, coming from from stuffed pole cat (a natural predator) was enough to cue the same behavior in the mama bird.

Humans unfortunately are not immune to similar click whirr effects – one of those you may have experienced in your own life. It happens when someone does you a favor or gives you something and you feel an debt or obligation to return the favor. This is what is known as the rule of reciprocity.

The good

On it’s own, it’s not a bad thing – in fact you could argue that it is one of the reasons human have survived. It helps to create bonded societies and can even be economical if we reciprocate according to our best abilities.

The bad

The problem lies in the fact that it can be used to manipulate people into doing things that are not in their best interest. For example when a salesperson offers an inexpensive gift and then asks for a larger investment in return… or when someone does a small favor, with the expectation of an even bigger favor in return.

Cialdini points out that the way to get around the strong pull of this rule is to be aware that the rule exists in the first place. For example: I went to an introductory training recently. I only wanted the first module which was reasonably priced – however as part of the preparation package, the company sent me a small care package including some chocolates and swag. It was very nice of them – but it also alerted me to the up-sell at the end of the training. Sure enough, at the end of the session there it was…

In the past, I might have been annoyed and have tried to return the chocolates (Toblerone minis!). Fortunately my disdain of retuning mail overrode my dislike of salesy manipulation – I was also prepared.

I still felt a slight obligation to buy in – however I did not want or need it. More importantly I was fully aware of this rule. I still re-considered their offer, but in the end remained firm and still enjoyed the Toblerones with relish.

The ugly

Of course I’m a bit high on the “guilt-prone” scale, so this may seem like a non issue to you, but I’m sure some of you have similar experiences that pushed your buttons. A lot of times we avoid situations that trigger or push our buttons entirely.

I think we can go too far the other way – automatically rejecting offer for help and assistance out of a fear of incurring social debt and obligation — or a fear of manipulation. That’s where mindfulness comes in – being intentional about where we accept debt and obligation, about who we trust and who we don’t.

I tell you this because I personally hate feeling manipulated and have in the past been suckered into doing things I did not want to do — both commercially and socially. That said, I also want to create community and build trust – both socially and commercially. My hope is by being transparent about the rules, we can all avoid feeling manipulated and make better more mindful decisions.

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