I was walking down Granville Street the other day on my way to London Drugs when I spotted two Chinese monks ahead of me speaking to passersby.
Ordinarily cautious of sidewalk solicitors, I let one of them engage me precisely because they appeared to be Buddhist monks, with their shaved heads and saffron shirts and trousers. He placed his palms together and bowed, and I did the same. He handed me a little card with red tassels, and slipped prayer beads onto my wrist.
Then he showed me a flipbook containing names and donations, which all, curiously, seemed to be 20 dollars and written in the same handwriting.
“Oh, no no no,” I chided him. “I don’t have any money.” I handed back the little card and slipped the beads off my wrist.
“No, I don’t have any,” I told him, and scurried away.
A few years ago, I would have felt guilty, but that day I didn’t. The monk had attempted to invoke one of the most powerful societal norms we have — the reciprocity rule — solely to gain my donation. Because he’d given me a gift, I was then obliged to return the favor, or so it seemed.
Fortunately, thanks to Robert Cialdini, social psychology researcher and author of Influence, I reframed and rejected the gifts for what they truly were.
As long as we perceive and define the action as a compliance device instead of a favor, the giver no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally: The rule says that favors are to be met with favors; it does not require that tricks be met with favors.
It’s worth noting that invoking the reciprocity rule in this fashion is a short-term strategy. We don’t tend to like people who have backed us into a corner. My fuzzy feelings about monks in general completely evaporated when it came to these particular ones. Indeed, not having any evidence they were affiliated with a temple, I began to wonder if they were monks at all, and whether there was anyone I could report them to.
The long-term (and ethical) strategy? Give freely, without asking for or expecting immediate returns. Reciprocity is powerful, and people will go to great lengths to try to return your favors. What goes around really does come around.
People will be suspicious; we’ve been taught “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and had so many experiences of being tricked that we sometimes reject treats.
That’s ok. Do it anyway.
Photo used under Creative Commons license from Richard Perry’s Flickr feed.