Why We Feel Obliged To Reciprocate
My 14-year old son, Alex, is a budding filmmaker. It is his passion. This summer he is shooting the third installment of his Python movie series starring his sister and featuring his cousins and friends. Over the last three years, he has dedicated himself to improving his craft. Because he has amazingly high standards, he quickly discovered that his equipment (the cameras my wife and I used to film kids’ activities over the years) didn’t produce the professional, polished results he sought. So, he began investing in better equipment: audio, video, lighting, editing, props, costumes, makeup… you name it.
For every gift-giving occasion he asked us for filmmaking supplies or money to go towards the expansion of his filmmaking cache. Late this spring, he began mowing neighborhood lawns to fund this year’s movie and in just a few months saved enough for his summer production.
But I had other ideas. I loaned him the money he needed to complete his project. The deal was he would pay me back at the end of the summer using his lawn mowing money.
As a father, I’ve tried to teach my children to be financially responsible. They should live beneath their means and save for a rainy day. You get the drill. A few years ago we opened savings accounts for each kid and require them to deposit 20% of any money they receive. They have begrudgingly, but regularly, complied and have “amassed” a nice chunk of change. The money he had saved for his film was in addition to his savings.
I’m a very proud father, but I got a little greedy. When I loaned my son the money for his summer film, I told him to leave the money in his savings account and continue to contribute money from his lawn mowing service. He could pay me back with whatever money remains. My goal was for him to be so impressed with how much money he had accumulated over the summer that he would eagerly continue saving without the “Oh Dad” and eye-rolling I typically get. I know.
He wrote an “I owe you” note with the full amount owed at the top and we deducted each installment payment from the total. About a week after I made the loan, Alex began to ask if he could just pay me back with the money he had in his savings account. “No,” I said. “Let’s just stick to the plan. You don’t have to pay me back any time soon.” As Ben Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
A few days later he handed me an envelope of cash for the full amount of the loan. He had taken it from his bank account. I asked my wife what had happened and she said, “He couldn’t live knowing he owed you the money. It was really bothering him.” And just like that my lesson failed.
I had unknowingly created a reciprocal obligation… a very powerful one. I had even employed the two triggers that amplify the feeling of a reciprocal obligation:
It is a surprise.
It is relevant and meaningful to the recipient.
The loan to my son was both a surprise and it was relevant and meaningful. He didn’t expect me to offer him the money and the funds were going to support his passion in life—making movies. Therefore, in addition to paying back the loan per our formal agreement, he was compelled to pay it off as early as possible.
Does the rule of reciprocity work when there isn’t a quid pro quo agreement?
Absolutely. My tennis teammate, Nick, and I were talking about the British Open of golf one day. That year, the tournament happened to be held at his hometown course. In fact, his sister lived across the street from the golf course. I had forgotten about the conversation when a couple of weeks later, he surprised me with a program from the tournament. He had his sister grab one for me. It was meaningful because he had remembered our conversation, knew my interest in the tournament, and went out of his way to obtain a program. Surprise… check. Relevant… check.
Months later, I had the good fortune to attend the French Open tennis tournament and I felt an overwhelming feeling of obligation to bring some authentic memorabilia back for Nick. In fact, I only purchased French Open merchandise for two people other than my direct family members and I had reciprocal obligations to both of them.
Here’s the interesting thing, the initial gift doesn’t have to be expensive in order to trigger the obligation of reciprocity and the payback is often greater than the value of the initial gift.
The problem is giving without a formal quid pro quo agreement feels risky. What if they don’t pay us back? Well, they may not pay us back. There are people who fail to reciprocate, but there is a price to pay when one ignores a commitment to a quid pro quo expectation. They risk being stigmatized as “freeloaders,” “users,” or “parasites.” These are obviously derogatory terms for someone who breaks the social contract of reciprocity. The consequence of this ignominy is to possibly become a social pariah. The penalty is separation or exclusion from one’s social group, which is one of the five fears of all human beings.
Reciprocal relationships are powerful influencers of behavior.
But beware of giving a generic or predictable gift—something without surprise or meaning. Not only will it not create a sense of obligation, but the recipient may actually resent the gesture as a transparent attempt to cajole a repayment. That demolishes trust and credibility.
The lesson here is simple: You must first give in order to get… but give meaningful surprises. Everybody wins.