Altruism is defined by its central quality of selflessness, a total abdication of our usual homo economicus attitude. We find this behavior in children, animals, and even our adult selves. It is a beautiful practice that doesn’t get enough attention. In fact, I was delightfully startled to find a story of altruism in the recent news. I have two more from April. The instant I read these stories, my outlook for the day improves. It’s the rare instance where the news actually uplifts.

The fascinating thing about altruism is the viral effect it creates, sparking all manner of third-party reciprocation. This behavior takes many forms. It is the occasional “pay it forward” line at the drive-thru. It is also the gentle peer pressure of one person’s charity sparking another’s decision to give. In any case, such behavior furthers our society in ways that we seldom appreciate. It sparks gratitude, a sense of accomplishment, and a well-deserved boost in personal pride. In many cases, it strengthens the bonds of a community.   

Indeed, to give is to gain.

It is harder to receive, of course.

How Can I Repay You?

In fact, many of us have difficulty expressing any sense of gratitude for the charity we receive. We instead feel a sense of indebtedness. That is not a mistake. In fact, some researchers argue that this sense of indebtedness is our primary, natural response and always has been. The authors of this analysis start with the very true observation:

Receiving favors is a mixed blessing.

Indeed. Such favors boost our sense of worth, community, and relief whatever strain we suffer. That’s nice. But the subsequent feeling that we must repay this charity, or pay it forward, or do some great deed to “earn” the gift is powerful. That feeling has driven the bulk of social exchange for eons. I wish I knew where it began.

Has this feeling of commensurate responsibility been cultivated through our culture? I don’t know. All I know is that it is deeply rooted in our psychology and is a primary lever for decision-making.

Therefore, it is also a primary lever for influence and persuasion—one that many people and organizations use to great effect. In Robert Cialdini’s seminal work, Influence, we dive into the social and psychological underpinnings of this powerful phenomenon. He starts with the very real benefit this impulse has had on our evolution as a species:

A widely shared and strongly held feeling of future obligation made an enormous difference in human social evolution.

This feels like an obvious-yet-necessary statement to plant at the start of the exposition. For all the manipulative sales tactics, marketing campaigns, and much more that emanates from this principle, we have to remember that the ultimate idea of obligation, and reciprocation, is a healthy thing. What’s the difference between the good and bad versions of this effect?

I think it centers on altruism. Doing something good for the sake of doing something good is … well … good. The power of altruism is that it is beautiful and selfless. It does not willfully induce a sense of obligation but we recipients often feel obliged anyway.

The more self-serving version of this principles is far more calculated. Far more stealthy. There is a profit motive that should be uncovered. But no one will do that for you.

I Don’t Need Your Charity

No one likes debt. No one likes talking about it, either. Personal financial debt often feels like a very private topic, hushed away with some degree of shame. People only seem to talk about it once they’ve paid it off. Like some rite of passage, this payoff brings life-altering effects.

Favors and small gifts carry similar weight over time. To this day, I feel guilty about not buying a nice gift for certain people who bought me nice gifts ten years ago. I have kept an account in my mind. It bothers me.

This is a very adult thing to feel. It is why adults fall into a weird gift-giving arms race where generosity leads to indebtedness leads to brinkmanship leads to some outer-circle friend receiving a far too generous gift. How does that happen? Well, you have two principles of Cialdini’s book working together. The first is, of course, reciprocity. The second is contrast. Together, these lead to something incredible potent. As Cialdini writes:

In combination, the influences of reciprocity and perceptual contrast can present a fearsomely powerful force.

So people buy other people things they don’t even want. It is accelerated by contrast (They gave me X so I must give them Y) but it begins with reciprocity.

We fight against this tendency wherever possible. We say no thanks to sensible favors. We insist on getting the next tab when someone else picks it up. It is also why we turn away free flowers offered by kind-hearted monks. In 1976, the New York Times ran a story about the Hare Krishnas, categorizing them as a sect of “religious panhandlers” who instigated our sense of reciprocity with a single act of kindness.

Was that kindness just a deft attempt at stealing our time and attention? I suppose. And I suppose this is why Hare Krishnas aren’t in airports anymore. As Cialdini writes,

It is a testament to the societal value of reciprocation that we have chosen to fight the Krishnas mostly by seeking to avoid rather than to withstand the force of their gift giving.

But isn’t this gift-giving just a simple, innocent gesture? Aren’t the Hare Krishnas just trying to spread a message of kindness and, well, altruism? What sparks this strange feeling of debt?

The Right Reciprocity

I dislike free samples. Most people have a far more balanced, healthy attitude about it. Companies calculate the costs and are happy to offer the sample as a way of showing that they stand by their product. Is it free? Yes. But it ain’t charity. So the sample provider doesn’t expect you to do anything. All the same, I feel some strange sense of obligation every time I try something.

So clearly, some of us are more sensitive than others. For the more balanced individual, taking a free sample is akin to any other transparent, rational exchange. It’s more like a test than a favor. You try the new salsa, judge its quality, and decide accordingly. So samples are a great thing, ultimately, and I need to get over my inhibitions.

Other interesting examples of sparking reciprocity are found in direct marketing campaigns. One story involved the unsolicited delivery of a free iPod to each of the top 25 law firms in the country. This was back when the iPod was a highly-coveted device. It was loaded with a promotional video and a return address. The total campaign cost quite a bit per mailing but the hope and strategy was to land a nice, asymmetric gain. As the author writes:

Each mailing cost about $400, but just adding just one new law firm meant tens of thousands of dollars to our client.

It’s hard to land such business in any conventional way. So a unique, novel, highly-prized gift is the equivalent of a free flower from a Hare Krishna. Only without the inconvenience of being stopped in the airport. Or the weirdness of being propositioned in-person.

For some reason, these two examples feel like good uses of the reciprocity rule. What makes free samples and iPods feel like welcome “favors” instead of cheap tricks? To determine that, let’s first list a few of the more ham-fisted efforts to spark reciprocity:

  1. Cheap, mass-produced swag
  2. Free-yet-unwanted gifts that come with a purchase
  3. The generic company christmas card
  4. The salesman purchasing your dinner
  5. Coupons and gift cards in exchange for a thirty-minute sales pitch on timeshares
  6. Free popcorn at the car dealership

Twenty years ago, these gestures and gifts were considered quite lovely. The novelty effect made us more receptive and, frankly, distracted from the real intent. But expectations have changed, these tactics have become widespread, and nothing about these efforts feels individualized anymore.

So the difference, I think, starts with clear intent. When these giveaways and favors come from a more transparent, deliberate effort to create an exchange, the act feels more honest and we seem to be more welcoming.

Next, a bit of novelty goes a long way. Getting a greeting card on a random day that has no association with holidays, birthdays, or other events feels lovely. It is utterly lost in the shuffle if we get it at Christmas time.

Value always helps. The more time or money spent, the more appreciative the reception.

Then there is individualization. Some of my favorite gifts of all time are things that the giver would have no business buying for anyone else. They really did think of me. It’s flabbergasting.  

So what is a good effort to spark reciprocity?

A gesture that carries clear intent (we would love your business, donation, time, attention),

Offers something unique (you can tell a real story about it),

That took time and effort to create (no junk or clickbait),

And connects with the audience’s sense of identity.

I think that’s how we can use this principle to beautiful effect.

And if it ever feels weird, then just shift back to altruism. Specifically, the anonymous kind. That’s always good in a pinch.



Image by Larry White from Pixabay