Reciprocity might sound like an algebra term, but in the world of undue influence, reciprocity is a very real tool that predators use when trying to convince us to act against our better interests.

When our Board member Robert Cialdini, the author of Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, ran his eye-opening study of our tipping behavior at restaurants, he found that we will often give a better tip to a server if they first give us something – usually a piece of candy – along with the check. More surprisingly, he found that if the server pauses, then doubles the amount of candy, remarking on how “nice” we are, we will dig deep and tip even better. It’s not just the giving of the trifle, it’s the compliment – and the implied social bond to a relative stranger – that prompts us to give more.

Although Cialdini’s work focuses on the positive aspects of how people can work together better through ethical persuasion, it’s important to keep in mind how the simple giving of a gift and a compliment can be powerful stuff indeed – and a dangerous tool in the hands of a predator or recruiter for a high-pressure group. Pedophiles use reciprocity to groom their victims by buying them expensive gifts, and timeshare scammers will act as if they are your new best friend, plying you with free drinks and food – and plenty of compliments. Many cults engage in “love-bombing”, bombarding recruits with attention and shows of friendship. An abusive spouse will shower his (or her) partner with romance and gifts to seduce them, or to keep them from leaving. Members of criminal gangs and terrorist cells will foster a “family” dynamic, surrounding their recruits with love and the assurance that no one else could understand them the way the group does.

We all want to feel good about ourselves, to feel accepted and loved by those around us. The feeling of belonging is a powerful incentive, and the reciprocity of giving something to receive something back is as old as civilization itself. However, it’s important be wary of those offering too much love, too soon – and to remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about reciprocity that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!