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Gift Giving Psychology: The Norm of Reciprocity
by H. Shive
In the 1970s, the Hare Krishna were experts at collecting donations. But how did they do it? More importantly this Christmas, how can you protect yourself from the norm of reciprocity?
The Norm of Reciprocity: Society’s Guilt Trip
When it comes to the art of persuasion, you wouldn’t expect a chanting, orange-clad, stubble-headed pagan to be an expert. The Hare Krishna were a very visible religious movement in the 1970s, especially in airports.
It was the famous psychologist Robert Cialdini who discovered that they used a powerful technique called the norm of reciprocity.
As described in the fascinating book Age of Propaganda, a norm is a specific guide to conduct. A norm is how society tells you to act normally – like tipping 15% at a restaurant, sneezing into your elbow, or not cutting in line.
The norm of reciprocity is simply this: If I give you something, you are obligated to give me something in return. The norm of reciprocity regulates exchange in a culture.
The Power of Flowers
Psychologist Robert Cialdini – who spent hours at the airport observing Krishnas in action – discovered that the sect used the norm of reciprocity to “guilt trip” people into giving money.
Simply, they would give you a flower.
The Krishna member would spy a “victim,” who would suddenly find a flower pressed into his or her hand. If the target attempted to give it back, the Krishna would refuse by saying, “It is our gift to you.” Only then did they request a donation.
The gift of a flower established a feeling of obligation. The targeted “victim” would feel compelled to donate – thus fulfilling the norm of reciprocity.
The Power of a Free Coke
In fact – even if you dislike someone – the norm of reciprocity can work. A study by Dennis Regan published 1971 illustrates this. In his experiment, two male students were surveyed for their “aesthetic judgments.” However one of the students was an accomplice who intentionally either made himself likable or unlikable.
After five minutes, sometimes the accomplice would leave and come back with two Cokes…offering the other Coke to the other student. At the end of the study, the accomplice asked the real student if he would like to buy some raffle tickets.
The results showed that when the accomplice gave the other student a Coke, he sold nearly twice as many tickets compared with no Coke – whether the accomplice was likable or not!
So beware of gifts! Those “free” cheese samples at the grocery, those “free” mailing labels from a nonprofit, and that “free” drink from someone in a bar. Beware that “free” invitation to a distant cousin’s or college friend’s wedding. Beware of those “free” pill samples given by a pharmaceutical rep.
The norm of reciprocity is supposed to establish a fair exchange for a fair society. Ironically, the norm of reciprocity can be used to cheat people too.
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Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Rev.ed. Collins, 2007.
Pratkanis, Anthony, & Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1991.
Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.
Canned Pumpkin is NOT Canned Squash: It’s Called Science
By Heath Shive
Every year, some writer thinks there is a pumpkin-conspiracy and publishes something like this corny article in Mental Floss: "Canned Pumpkin Isn't Actually Canned Pumpkin."
It's a lie.
As exciting as that might be – to attach paranoia to a pumpkin pie – here's the real science!
Pumpkin Pie Isn’t Squash, Jack-o-Lanterns Aren’t Zucchinis
Did you know that the classic orange pumpkin and the zucchini...are the same plant? They're both members of the species Cucurbita pepo!
But we don't call jack-o-lanterns "carved zucchinis," do we?
Canned pumpkin is primarily made with the Dickinson pumpkin. Libby’s brand of canned pumpkin is made exclusively of a variety of Dickinson pumpkin. That’s because the Dickinson pumpkin is the best tasting pumpkin. Pumpkin pies in the United States are overwhelmingly made from this cultivar.
Here’s the Real Science
The Dickinson pumpkin and the butternut squash are both members of the same species, Cucurbita moschata.
But that doesn't mean that they are both squashes!
Here’s another example.
Broccoli, cabbage, and brussel sprouts are all members of the same species, Brassica oleracea. But we don't say that sauerkraut is made of broccoli or that cole slaw is made from brussel sprouts!
And we don't say that poodles are Rottweilers (or vice versa), even though they're both from the same species.
The Dickinson pumpkin is a pumpkin! Just because its species has the butternut squash doesn't make the Dickinson pumpkin a squash...anymore than a poodle is really a Rottweiler. Or a jack-o-lantern really a zucchini. Or a cabbage is really a broccoli.
Scientific articles should be left in the hands of science-minded writers. Before blog writers and even trivia-magazines like Mental Floss go to print, they really owe their ethical best to check the facts!
It’s called Science. Science – like making a pumpkin pie – is best when you do it correctly.
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Gifts and Science: How to Receive the Most and Best
By Heath Shive
There’s the old Biblical proverb, “It’s better to give than receive.” But kids will tell you something different – it is way more fun to receive gifts! Looking at your credit card bill, you might wish you received more too.
But science can help you out.
Whether for Christmas, weddings, baby showers, birthdays, or graduation parties, there’s a scientific way to maximize your gift-receiving selfishness!
Gift Giving Psychology
In 2003, psychologists Gad Saad and Tripat Gill performed a study on young adults to determine how much they spent on gifts and also who received the most expensive gifts.
Specifically, Saad and Gill were predicting that the gift's price would correlate with genetic relatedness. In their paper, genetic relation was measured as the value r, where r equaled the amount of shared genetic material.
For example, your parents would have an r value of 0.50, because you share 50% of your DNA with each parent. Siblings would also have an r value of 0.50. Grandparents (r=0.25), aunts/uncles (r=0.25), half-siblings (r=0.25), cousins (r=0.125), step-relations (r=0), and friends (r=0) were also included.
As Saad and Gill predicted, the study results showed that the closer the genetic relation, the greater the gift. Close family (r = 0.50) received $73.12 on mean average. Moderately close family (r = 0.25) and distant family (r = 0.125) received $19.03 and $18.56 respectively.
How Does This Help Me?
Now you know who to invite to your party or wedding! If you have to choose between your aunts and high-school friends, it’s better to invite your aunts. If you have to choose between your favorite sibling and your best friend for your maid-of-honor/best man, choose your sibling.
Saad & Gill’s study showed other patterns too:
Saad and Gill’s study is far from exhaustive – it was one study of one group from one city. There are bound to be cultural and individual differences. But compare the results above with your own experience. Pretty close, right?
Who spends more money on your wedding: your parents or college buddies? Who will donate a kidney: your family or your friends?
In “The Dukes of Hazzard,” Boss Hogg once said, “Blood is thicker than water, but money is thicker than blood.”
Money is not thicker than blood. Family is always a good investment.
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Saad, Gad and Tripat Gill, “An Evolutionary Psychology Perspective on Gift-Giving among Young Adults,” Psychology & Marketing 20 (2003): 765-84.
Empathy and Evil: Why Our Feelings Fail
By Heath Shive
You might think empathy was a “magic bullet” that would solve problems. Empathy – whereby I feel your feelings as if they were my own – guides us to treat others as we treat ourselves. Bullying, abuse, racial hatred, and political division all stem from a lack of empathy, right?
But our feelings have an inherent bias. Empathy does not require a rational, factual framework to exist. Humans only have so much emotional energy – and we can waste our empathy on the wrong things.
Robert E. Lee and Empathy’s Lack of Wisdom
The famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee acknowledged that slavery was a “moral & political evil.” For that matter, he believed that the secession of Virginia (his home state) from the Union was unconstitutional.
So why did he fight for the Confederacy during the American Civil War?
Lee empathized more with the South than with Union politics. He valued his identity as a Virginian over his identity as a citizen of the United States.
On the whole, empathy is a poor moral guide. As Paul Bloom – author of the book Against Empathy – writes: “It grounds foolish judgments and…can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions…”
Because of his empathy, Lee fought for the Confederacy and ended up preserving slavery and secession (the very things that he acknowledged as evil) for five extra years.
Empathy Is Always Biased
Empathy is a spotlight – by focusing on one thing, we ignore all other things. That focus will make us blind to a bigger picture.
In 2005, an American teenager named Natalee Holloway went missing while on vacation in Aruba (her body has never been found). Holloway’s disappearance became a media sensation, especially on Fox and Headline News.
Psychologist Paul Slovic pointed out that when Holloway went missing, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Americans found it easier to empathize with the plight of one American girl than with the hundreds of victimized girls on another continent.
Evolutionary psychology experiments have shown that we prefer and focus on the people that most resemble us. We are born with instincts to prefer those of our family, bloodline, and tribe more than prefer those outside of our experience. We even prefer the company of people who agree with us politically, share the same religion, or even share the same favorite football team.
This isn’t a racism or bigotry per se. There’s a big difference between bias and hatred. There’s a big difference between liking what you are versus hating others who differ.
Empathy will reveal our biases – even if those biases are natural.
However, empathy can also be connected – via our imagination – to people who have no resemblance to us at all. How else could have Yankee abolitionists have empathized with African slaves? How else could people around the world fight to preserve endangered species? How else could different people, even different ethnicities, share a common patriotism?
Good or bad, empathy will always have an inherent bias – a narrow focus, an innumeracy, or a preference. As psychologist Paul Bloom writes, “It’s only when we escape from empathy and rely instead on the application of rules…that we can, to at least some extent, become fair and impartial.”
Empathy Is a Feeling, Not a Doing
It’s important to separate empathy from compassion. Empathy is a feeling; compassion is a doing. An act of kindness requires an action, not emotion.
Many feel sorry about the post-hurricane tragedy in Puerto Rico – but they do not send aid. Many Americans despise abortion – but they do no adopt orphan children or abandoned babies.
Your empathy will protect your feelings by distorting the facts of your actions. This is “the moralization gap” – the tendency of people to diminish the severity of their own acts relative to those of others. Hitler famously loved dogs and despised the cruelty of hunting. Bush Administration officials who knowingly lied about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction have never been tried for treason or war crimes. Corporate executives who have no problem downsizing or outsourcing working jobs (subjecting many to monetary difficulty) become angry anytime someone mentions an increase in capital gains tax.
Especially in the age of social media, many have no problems expressing their opinions and beliefs (their feelings). But what good do they accomplish? It becomes emotion for emotion’s sake…and too often, hate for hate’s sake.
We can feel wonderful things. We can feel terrible things too.
There is more to emotional maturity than merely feeling. What we do – and how we do it – is the test of emotional maturity.
Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Ecco, 2016.
Slovic, Paul; David Zionts; Andrew K. Woods; Ryan Goodman; Derek Jinks (August 2011). "Psychic numbing and mass atrocity". New York University School of Law: 1–17.
Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. W. W. Norton, 1995. p. 173.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.