How Reciprocity Can Work Against You as a Powerful Force of Influence
I’m in a bind of my own making, yet Robert Cialdini could have totally predicted this.
A friend at work and I went for “a quick drink” a few months back, which in London means that you spend the entire night getting drunk together, eat expensive bar snacks, and then find your own bleary-eyed way home to disparate parts of the city on the tube.
The issue came when our waiter presented the bill. I knew it would come to a least a Benjamin or two and was ready with my card to pay my half. What I wasn’t prepared for was my friend’s response.
“Do you want to go Dutch or do what friends do?”
I had no idea what she was talking about and asked her to elaborate.
“Well, in my circle, one of us picks up the tab, knowing that it’s the other person’s turn the next time”.
My mouth gaped and I didn’t know what to say. I had never come across this largesse before, except maybe in the movies when a bit part player, wanting to grab power, takes the bill and tells everyone else not to worry about it.
Or when parents, or friends of your parents cover the tab in a magnanimous way to indicate that they are the adults and you are still the children (or impoverished students).
Or when a guy you have no intention of sleeping with (and yes, it’s always a guy) leans over and taps his card on the reader before you can register what’s happening.
In short, this sort of thing is normally an uncomfortable power play. The fact that my friend had suggested it made me feel… well, weird. We are two adults on a par, having drinks on a work night. Why would one of us (and by us I mean two independent ladies) cover the tab for the other?
I was floored and I didn’t know what to say. We had had such a lovely evening together. I felt bonded, boozed up and elevated by clever conversation. Her question left me with so many questions of my own:
Did she want me to pay so she didn’t have to? Was she strapped for cash and didn’t want to say?
Was she initiating me into the cabal of her closest social circle: the one where everyone is as rich as Anna Delvey’s New York sycophants?
Was this a well known social nicety that had so far eluded me?
Or was this a manipulative power play to ensure that if she paid, then I would be indebted to pay back the favour?
Whatever the truth may be, I just let the weird thing happen to me. I constantly mask my social awkwardness and pretend to know what’s going on anyway, so I smiled and said:
“Let’s do whatever you want to do.”
Feeling all the while out of control and intensely uneasy about the scenario I’d found myself in.
What I really wanted to say was:
“Let’s go Dutch. I don’t know when I’m next going to see you.”
So direct, so simple. But I didn’t and now I feel a heavy weight of responsibility about the night.
This example could have been written for Cialdini’s chapter on reciprocity in The Art of Influence. He outlines how important the idea of reciprocity is for us all, so much so, that if anyone elicits a promise out of us, then we feel inordinately responsible for paying that debt back. The example he gave was of an off-duty nurse giving a guy a ride home from hospital that was slightly out of her way. She asked for nothing in return, which set up a reciprocity loop that both he and his family felt indebted to pay back.
So, I don’t really know what happened with my friend. All I know is that she paid, and ever since I’ve had this uneasy feeling of indebtedness. We recently talked about meeting in London and I considered moving a whole week’s worth of work appointments around and taking a few hours’ travel time out, just so that I could meet her and pay for the bar tab at the end of the night. I no longer live in the city and would have to navigate a 5-hour round trip, just to meet her for a while after work.
How crazy is that?!
It just shows that the principle of reciprocity exerts a strong force on social interactions and can be used — for good or ill — as a compelling driver of action.
I wrote more about Cialdini and other social scientists in this article: