Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Psychology Lesson Wrapped in a Rant

The norm of reciprocity reared its ugly head this week, and once reminded, I have begun seeing it again everywhere.

Social Psychology was one of my top five classes in college. The material in that class was the most memorable and useful of any psych class (and the professor was one of the best). I'll make my sad attempt at summarizing, but see the links for more articulate info.

"The norm of reciprocity" (moreso than the term "reciprocity" by itself) refers to a social norm (hence the name) in which when someone gives you something, you feel obliged to give them something in return. Maybe it sounds nice on the surface - fairness, and all that; the golden rule? - but the best parts about it are the insidious parts.

It's part of the "used car salesman" arsenal of tricks, although it happens all the time - often without consciously meaning to. This page (at the Rick Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements - which I have never heard of, but sounds totally awesome) discusses how it is exploited -- like they give you something you don't want in the first place.

Also, say someone asks a really big favor for you - unreasonably big. You refuse (duh), but then they ask you for a smaller favor (or, say, to purchase a smaller item). Often, you agree to this - feeling bad for refusing their first request, but also because they have done something nice for you by "commuting" what they ask for.

Basically, there are lots of shady ways you can get stuck in that position - maybe without noticing. Say, for example, you join a gym. The guy who signs you up offers you free workouts (personal training) for the first week. Wow, great!

Except...once the week is over, you are psychologically indebted to him. He asks you to continue and pay for the sessions. You were not planning on doing personal training and cannot afford it. He gives a sob story about his kids and the holidays. cave. Or rather, my gym buddy caved. I tried - with little success - to explain the norm of reciprocity, and how it is her $500 - not his - so she does not have to continue to work with him and pay. In fact, she had a different trainer that she wanted to switch to - but couldn't shake the guilt. (Or...that's how I read it. Between these two guys, the new guy would have been way more awesome, I think, must be this, right?)

And now, a few examples. Read the rest of that page about other social influence techniques, and then keep a keen eye out. If there's one thing I learned in social psychology, it's that you can't just do things. (Or do things, and then rationalize them later) - especially in difficult situations. Or else you might end up like this.*

Free gift wrap. gift wrap. I succumbed to laziness and let them, only to discover I had no dollars in my purse. And neither did the friend I came with. I stood around awkwardly for another thirty seconds, and finally let it go and bailed. I did not actually owe them money. I know it's true. I am not paying for the materials, or their time. Still? I could not have felt any worse on the drive home.

Free prizes. Free crap to test drive cards. Hint: do not buy a car at a certain place just because they gave you crap. Seems obvious. ...except that people still do.

"Free issue!" Shut up, magazine I have already unsubscribed from once. Not only are you not going to win me back, you're not going to win me with a freakin' con like that. Did you notice how when they give you a free issue - or whatever - the rest of your subscription is at the regular ridculously high price? Or, it was something that sucks and you didn't really want much anyway, but it was free? Speaking of which - go cancel that damn free Entertainment Weekly from Best Buy, if you haven't already.

Christmas gifts. There's one you WERE aware of, right? A work friend gets you something $5, they get a $5 thing back - not a personal present. There are some people who are very conscious of their giving. Budgeting, selecting recipients and amounts without real considerations to what they get in return. Those people probably do not wig out in these situations, or someone on their list is empty-handed for them. But I bet most people aren't those people. (...just ask your grandmother?)

Read more about social influence, persuasion, conformity, etc.

*Sorry for bringing up Zimbardo. Anyone who has taken a single psych class, go roll your freakin' eyes. Okay, done rolling? Now think of all the times you let the norm of reciprocity kick you in the face in the last week alone. NO, I WON'T DONATE TO YOU JUST BECAUSE YOU SENT ME SOME DAMN ADDRESS LABELS.

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