Saturday, January 07, 2006

Weapons of Influence: Reciprocation

Note Joe Lieberman in the front row.

(Part 2 of a series of posts exploring Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. Part 1 is here.)

If someone does a favor for you, you'll probably try to return it. You'll feel obliged. As an experiment, a behavioral researcher sent Christmas cards to a group of complete strangers. Back came a flood of reciprocating cards, though none of the people sending the cards knew the researcher. The rule of reciprocity is a very strong compliance trigger.

Professor Cialdini insists

[H]uman societies derive a truly significant competitive advantage from the reciprocity rule, and consequently they make sure their members are trained to comply with and believe in it. Each of us has been taught to live up to the rule and each of us knows about the social sanctions. . . applied to anyone who violates it. ... Because there is general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered one of their number.

When we feel indebted, we'll act against our own interests to escape our disapproval of ourselves for breaking the reciprocity rule.

We feel obligated to give back even if we never ask for the favor. That is, someone else can initiate a relationship of obligation without our asking for it. Charities that send us free labels printed with our names and addresses count on this. So do homeless people who wash our car windows while we fill our gas tanks. We will sometimes try to stop the disquieting tickle caused by indebtedness by doing foolish or dangerous things, such as lending our cars to people we know are bad drivers. (I know; I lost a car that way.)

Skilled negotiators use the reciprocity trigger to get their way. Their opening move may be to try to sell you a very expensive product or ask for an oversize sum as a donation; when they back down from their initial gambit, you feel you have been given a favor and become willing to spend more than you ever planned. When the reciprocity trigger sends you down this compliance path a couple of remarkable things follow, both counterintuitive: 1) although you've been manipulated, you feel you had a responsible part in making the agreement and want to fulfill it; and 2) you are likely to get satisfaction from whatever you agreed to.

So how does the reciprocity rule work in our political environment? Often it is pretty darn straight up. Jack Abramoff didn't funnel all that money to Republican pols for nothing. Recipients act as accomplices in a reciprocity transaction, even if they can say they never laid eyes on the lobbyist. E. J. Dionne makes this point:

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, insisted on Wednesday that Bush does not know Abramoff personally.... According to an Oct. 15, 2003, story in Roll Call, Abramoff was one of a half-dozen lobbyists who raised $100,000 for Bush's 2000 campaign. When Bush was battling Al Gore's efforts to recount Florida's votes, Abramoff was there with the maximum $5,000 contribution.... The administration, in turn, was open to Abramoff. As National Journal reported in its April 20, 2002, issue, "Last summer, in an effort to raise the visibility of his Indian clients, Abramoff helped arrange a White House get-together on tax issues with President Bush for top Indian leaders..."

And so it goes.

But more complex applications of the reciprocity rule are even more interesting. Joe Lieberman's repeated betrayal of his own party seems to follow from compliance with the reciprocity trigger. Republicans sometimes treat him as a "better Democrat," a "serious" Senator. He laps it up. In this persona of chummy collegiality, he signed off on Bush's Iraq war and feels bound by the reciprocity rule to keep on supporting his intellectual and moral lapse despite all evidence, insisting famously: "the war in Iraq is a task of high justice and necessity."

Lieberman also provides an interesting example of a Democrat trying to use the reciprocity trigger to divide Republicans. In an environmental hearing early in the Bush era,

Lieberman had harsh words for the Bush administration, but was sympathetic to [EPA Secretary Christine Todd] Whitman, whom he characterized as a lone environmental voice waging a ''fierce battle'' within an anti-environmental administration. Whitman declined to accept the compliment. ''I wouldn't characterize anything as a fierce battle, but as a vibrant discussion,'' she said.

Apparently she's made of tougher stuff than Joe. It is interesting to observe though, that being a sucker for reciprocity himself, he turns to it, apparently instinctively, as a weapon of influence.

The social/psychological rule requiring "good people" to return "favors" plays out on a far wider scale than just influencing the choices made by individuals. For conservatives, liberals are "bad people," "traitors," because we don't seem to understand that we have an obligation to support our country "right or wrong." Their feeling of unexamined obligation has been triggered -- how can we not respond properly? To ask questions or have reservations about our country's conduct is to deny our indebtedness. Were we not properly taught to repay our debts?

Poor people, needy people, are also seen by conservatives as violating the reciprocity rule: they are moochers, taking but not giving. They can pay their debt, at least in part, by obsequious acknowledgement of favors from the privileged. But if poor people insist they deserve better, they break a major, usually unarticulated, social taboo.

Though Ciardini goes to considerable length to show that we are all sometimes patsies for the reciprocation trigger, he says we don't have to let automatic response rule our actions. The answer is not only to follow our contrarian instincts, to throw away the unwanted address labels or to push away the homeless window washer. It is also to recognize the offerings, address labels, cleaner windows, or approval of our status (like Lieberman) as what they are: efforts to create obligation.

To engage in this sort of arrangement with another is not to be exploited by that person through the rule for reciprocation. Quite the contrary, it is to participate fairly in the 'honored network of obligation' that has served us so well, both individually and societally, since the dawn of humanity. However, if the initial favor turns out to be a device, a trick, an artifice designed specifically to stimulate our compliance with a larger return favor, that is a different story. Our partner is not a benefactor but a profiteer.

That is, insincere favors create no obligation. Sadly, surrounded by so many con games, we all must become more and more practiced at making that crucial distinction. This is not good for us, but neither is being taken for suckers by our better instincts.

1 comment:

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