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The Simple Power of Tit for Tat

Ulrich Boser 2

Why do we work with others? In many ways, the answer is simple. It’s about reciprocity. I do something for you. You do something for me, and often one of the easiest ways to build up faith in someone else is to exchange favors, to engage in reciprocity.

Think, for instance, about how you might become friends with the accountant at work. First, you might swing past his or her desk to talk about how hot its been outside. Then perhaps that accountant comes past to talk to you about the new CEO. Then you invite the accountant out for coffee one afternoon, and, then, if you’re really going to become friends, you might plan for some sort of weekend activity. Maybe you go to a bar? Or a baseball game? In short, you exchange invitations and activities until something deeper evolves, something more intimate, a friendship. Or as New York Times columnist David Brooks once argued, “Trust is reciprocity coated by emotion.”

NPR reporter Alix Spiegel had a wonderful piece on reciprocity a few years ago, and the thing about the practice is that it’s easy to underestimate, as Spiegel points out. We engage in reciprocity so much that we often don’t realize it. But quid pro quo is one of those social rules that govern almost every exchange, and there are no shortage of examples of how embedded reciprocity is within our sense of culture. In Bulgarian, the word for Thank you translates roughly as, Good, I’ll give a gift back. In India and Japan, families will sometimes use ledgers to track the value of gifts so that when they have to return the favor, they will give something of equal value.

Take, for instance, this widely cited study by psychologist David Strohmetz, which Spiegel mentions briefly in her article. For the research, Strohmetz tapped an undergraduate student—let’s call her Nicole—who worked as a waitress at an Italian restaurant. It was a casual sort of place: red-checkered tablecloths, bottles of straw-basket Chianti, and lots of spaghetti on the menu.

Nicole had worked at the Italian restaurant for a few years, and as part of the experiment, she began randomly choosing diners who would receive a little chocolate with their bill. In the control group, Nicole delivered the bill and nothing else. For a second group of diners, Nicole gave them the check and two pieces of chocolate. In those instances, the diners gave a little bit more of a tip. It seemed that they liked the candy, but it didn’t sway them. It didn’t make their evening.

For a third group, Strohmetz added a crucial variation. When Nicole brought the check to the diners, she gave each customer one piece of chocolate. Then, just as she was leaving the table, she stopped, held out a candy basket, and gave the customers the choice of one additional piece of chocolate. It was an obvious gesture. Nicole made it seem like she really wanted to do those particular diners a favor, and the results were unequivocal: The people who had received the special gesture gave a 21 percent larger tip than those in the control group. They felt indebted—and they paid it back in cash.

On one hand, the experiment makes perfect sense for our cooperative-primed mind. Someone gave you something. Of course, you should give them something back. That’s what’s fair. That’s what’s right. But there’s also something curious about the study. After all, the customers received an extra candy that they did not ask for. Maybe they didn’t want it. And frankly, it seems painfully blatant that the waitress was gunning for a tip. She gave the customers the bill for the meal—and then with a ham-handed flourish, she handed them some chocolates.

Even Strohmetz himself was startled by the results. He knew people had some sort of reciprocal instincts. He just didn’t think it would be that strong. “Tips are supposed to be based on quality of service, based on the size of the bill,” he told me.

When it comes to social trust, there are two simple lessons. For individuals, the take-away is that the easiest way to build up a sense of faith with someone that you don’t know is to engage in reciprocity. When you engage in Tit for Tat, you can build a very simple but power faith in each other.

For society, there’s a different lesson, however, since after all, you can’t exchange quid pro quo with everyone that you meet. The woman in a call center in India? The waitress that served you in another country? There’s no way to engage in direct exchange. Instead, then, we need to go back to David Brooks, and as a nation, we need to do more to create that feeling, that sense of connectedness that ultimately coats our sense of faith in others. Because it’s that feeling, that emotion, that makes people give a quid back for your quo.


Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Ruth Ruth

    I just about laughed out loud about the chocolate experiment !!

  2. Kathleen Manzo Kathleen Manzo

    Can’t wait for the book Ulrich.. Congrats!

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