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Personal Growth

To Your Mind, Getting a Gift Means Giving in Return

The rule of reciprocation is deeply rooted in our behavior such that we return the favor even when we don’t want to. The behavior has helped our species survive by creating community.

What’s the Latest Development?

With the holidays approaching, the social rules that govern the giving and receiving of gifts are perhaps more present than at any other time of the year. Simply put, it is rude to receive without giving in return. Called the rule of reciprocation, the imperative to return the favor has surprisingly deep roots in our psychology. In 1974, for example, sociologist Phillip Kunz sent Christmas cards to over 600 individuals by choosing names and addresses at random from telephone directories. To his surprise, he received more than 200 cards in return, and some families continued to send cards for nearly 20 years despite never knowing Kunz personally. 

What’s the Big Idea?

From the Hare Krishna at the airport to the waiter who gives you a mint with your dinner check, receiving something typically requires that you give back whether you want to or not. “There’s not a single human culture that fails to train its members in this rule,” says Robert Cialdini, emeritus psychologist at Arizona State University. “This is probably because there are some obvious benefits to the rule of reciprocation; it’s one of those rules that likely made it easier for us to survive as a species.”

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