If there was one thing I hated about getting gifts growing up, it was sending thank you notes. My annoyance with them was not due to me not being appreciative, it was just the act of showing appreciation. Now, as an adult, I scoff when I go to a wedding or something and don’t get a thank-you for my gift. I thank my mother and now my wife for ingraining in me what is known as the rule of reciprocation. This is a rule more powerful than the most beautifully handwritten letter.

Case in point:
Back in the 1970s Phillip Kunz sent hundreds of Christmas cards to people. After a few days cards started to come back from the recipients with nice notes and family pictures. The trouble is Kunz didn’t know these people. He’s a sociologist and just pulled names at random from a directory. These people didn’t know Kunz, but because he sent them a card they reciprocated. Some continued to send cards for many more years. Reciprocation is a rule that is pounded into us from birth, and apparently it crosses cultures as well.

Reciprocation goes much further than simply sending and receiving cards though. It can be used for personal gain as well. Some restaurants will give you a free mint when they bring you the bill. This little gift elevates tipping by about 3%. If the server brings an extra mint, and tells the guests that the extra is special to them, tipping went up 20%. This was something I experienced just the other night when a waiter combined our meals in a way that saved a group of five about $13. And his tip ended up higher than it otherwise would have been.

How far reciprocation goes can go into the realm of unsurprising but disturbing. There’s evidence that shows reciprocation works with getting doctors to prescribe certain types of drugs and of course getting favors in Congress.

The rule of reciprocation can be used properly without being abused as well. Think about your job. If much of what you do relies on other people to properly do their job then it pays well for you to establish some baseline reciprocation with them. Buy them coffee, maybe give a holiday gift, and be especially willing to give them a helping hand with something they’re working on. Career pros might call some of this networking, which is true. What’s really being done is setting of a series of reciprocations that you can count on to make you successful, or at least provide a stable paycheck.

The rule shouldn’t be abused though. Offering a free car wash and asking for donations is great. Targeting donors through the mail with a gift of address labels and asking for a donation in return is drawing the line. In most cases the rule offers the user a large return on their investment. We should all be using it in some way or another. But we should be careful not to use it for an unfair advantage; or at least be aware when it’s being used against us.

Read: Give And Take: How The Rule Of Reciprocation Binds Us

categories: economics, personal finance, psychology