• Reciprocity theory: The Golden Rule is still the rule

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    FOR an unknown reason, a male acquaintance that you’ve not seen in ages suddenly pops up with a text message inviting you for coffee at Starbucks. It triggers your first question: “What’s the agenda?” It’s an important question as it involves spending at least four hours of your valuable time, two-thirds of which are expected to be spent in congested traffic.

    “Why can’t we settle for an email exchange, instead?” This is always on top of your mind because you don’t want to disrupt the delicate fabric of friendship but ensure that the business relationship remains as professional as it can be under the circumstances. Then you wonder if this person has an important agenda, then why is he pushing for coffee? Why not lunch or dinner? At least, he should’ve given me the opportunity to choose the type of meal, including the best time and the day when we could possibly meet.

    Obviously, the other person is volunteering to foot the bill. This person needs your help and he thinks you’re only one of the few who can help him. This was the short story of Leandro (not his real name) who happens to be my seatmate in an international conference.

    I told him: “Why don’t you offer to foot the bill, instead? But this time, invite him for lunch or dinner at a nice restaurant that is halfway between your base and his home base?” Leandro was shocked. He was not expecting that kind of answer.

    Call it as another out-of-the-box thinking, but with this approach, your male acquaintance will also be shocked, if not be embarrassed by your generosity and genuine offer of perpetual friendship, assuming that he’s not kapalmuks (thick-faced). With that option, the other person must become a part-time accountant, who may try to approximate the amount of time, money and effort you spent, that he may promise to return the favor in the near future.

    There’s no guarantee that he will do that, but at least, you’ve shown one positive action toward that person. In social psychology, it’s called the Reciprocity Rule, referring to a situation of a person who initiated depositing positive action into the emotional bank account of another. In general, when you respond in a friendly, positive manner, the recipient can become much nicer and much more cooperative than you can imagine.

    One good application of the Reciprocity Rule is shown in an experiment by Dennis Regan who had subjects who were made to believe that they were in an “art appreciation” class. One of Regan’s assistants, who went out for a short break, was in that experiment. When the assistant reappeared, he brought with him a soft drink for the subject.

    After the “art appreciation” class was completed, Regan’s accomplice requested the subject to buy raffle tickets from him who obliged by buying more than he expected. In the study, the subject spent more money for the tickets than the cost of the unsolicited free drink given by the assistant.

    Conversely, if you do the opposite, like ignoring such request for a meeting, or feigning that you didn’t receive any invite or even rejecting the invitation no matter how diplomatic it is manner, the response of the other party can be brutally nasty and hostile, that you may not know what could hit you in both short- and long-term circumstances.

    Now, I’m worried. Another acquaintance invited me to be a moderator in one national conference. You mean I will do the no-brainer job of managing a question-and-answer portion? Yuck! I gave him a good, pleasant excuse that the event coincides with another equally important event, which is true, anyway.

    Besides, I’m not exactly good at doing that kind of job, which to my mind also devalues my more than three decades of fruitful experience to something that should be done by any junior, good-looking, humor-natured guy.

    I wish I could deposit something positive into his emotional bank account, without injuring my credibility. After all, I did not get this far to accept every job that is offered to me, even if they pay me a good sum for it. If he invited me to be a resource speaker instead, then I could probably turn things around to accept it, even without pay.

    Now, that the acquaintance has not answered my text messages for another project, a question keeps on lingering in my mind: “Has he become a jerk?” We don’t know. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Rey Elbo is a business consultant on human resources and total quality management as a combined expertise. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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    1. It’s called “utang na loob”. You made a person owe something to you by giving him/her a favor in the hope that when you need something from him/her, you will not be ashamed to ask.I do that all the time. Good way of making friends.

    2. It is not possible to please everybody all the time. One who tries to do it will be sorry for ending up as toy puppet of everybody. A lion king is respected. A lapdog is detested.