You scratch my back…

Have you heard of the Machiavellian brain hypothesis? It was put forward to explain why our human brains are advanced over those of the brute beasts by a much larger margin than was required for survival. The suggestion was that humans flourished by virtue of their ability to be so persuasive that they always got the best cave, or the best food, or the best mate. I prefer that theory to a rival one: that brain development primarily took place in females gossiping about who was being unfaithful to whom in the settlement, while the males were just grunting in the fields.

The Machiavellian brain hypothesis puts the ability to persuade right at the heart of human social activity. And that suggests that understanding how to persuade will teach us a great deal about human nature. Of course, no reader of this newspaper would do anything as base as using persuasion for their own benefit, but we are allowed to learn so that we can resist being persuaded, and thus endanger the freedom of our will. (You will have noticed that, in that sentence, I have mildly flattered you, while providing you with a justifiable excuse for learning how to get one up over your fellows.)

There is a genuine science of persuasion, recording how psychologists, and others, have experimented with tactics of persuasion and noted those which have proved effective. “Proved” here means significantly effective: persuasion is not an exact science. Most of the studies have been observational, but increasingly they are being confirmed or extended by brain scans.

On this occasion I want to look at a very powerful programme: reciprocation. From time immemorial human beings have known that a fruitful social life depends on this. Those who were naturally good at it flourished to become our ancestors. So most of us are dyed-in-the-genes reciprocators. We often encounter advertisements which offer a free gift, without obligation. We think: “How kind!” But is it really without obligation? No legal obligation, of course, but a powerful psychological obligation. Businesses which do this are able to calculate accurately the value of that gift through the increase in resulting orders. You may have wondered how that charity can afford to send you a free gift. Think of the cheese spotted by a mouse: it isn’t charity – it’s bait.

I should know. In a former professional capacity I was faced with the challenge of getting the largest possible response to business surveys. I tried different ruses, but the one which got by far the best result was including a free ballpoint pen, with the suggestion that it might be used to complete the survey. Bought in bulk, the pens cost a matter of pence – less than the postage – but it improved the reliability of the surveys magnificently.

You may remember the Hare Krishna soliciting contributions in public places like airports. Initially they were not successful until they used reciprocation triggered by giving flowers to the public. The contributions leapt, and continued to rise. What happened to the flowers? Hare Krishna simply went around the rubbish bins, recovered the rejected flowers, and recycled them.

You will notice in these examples that there is little need in reciprocation for equal exchange. A small favour can get a big return. Lend someone a book and you may get back a spare ticket for the opera. If you are an MP a short but personal reply may earn you a vote from a staunch supporter of your opponent. A royal hand extended with a gracious smile can turn a republican into a monarchist. In fact, a big gift raises suspicion, but who suspects, for instance, the gift of a well-chosen compliment.

A dedicated reciprocator can ensure that all his influential contacts have received their little favours, whether it a loan of a DVD or a useful internet link. A bit too manipulative? Wait till your young nephew needs a starting job, and you have a business friend who owes you. You may not regret it then.

Just as effective as a gift is a concession. Linda was anxious to get her firm into the Italian market before her competitors. Deciding to learn Italian, she asked her boss for three months’ paid leave of absence to learn the language. That was quite impossible; her current work was far too important. The following week she told her boss that she had found an Italian course which would take up one day a week. Her boss was delighted to agree, and insisted on meeting all Linda’s connected expenses.

You are in a shop, looking at a piece of audio equipment which is lovely – but may be a little too expensive for you. As you dither, the assistant says: “If you buy that, I’ll throw in an extra pair of quality earphones.” All of a sudden the equipment becomes affordable. You were balancing on the edge, and a trivial “gift” was enough to tip you over.

Gifts and concessions lubricate our social lives – and have since time began. They are not sinister, provided we keep our wits about us. And we can console ourselves with the thought that reciprocation is at the heart of Christianity. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is reciprocation in action. But it is even more fundamental. God has not only given us the gift of existence in his own image and likeness, but has also sent us his only Son “while we were yet sinners”. The very small gift of ourselves which we make is reciprocated with eternal life. Not a bad bargain, I think.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to You scratch my back…

  1. Alex Jones says:

    There are simple brain dynamics behind reciprocation; our life is our territory where all strangers are enemies, a source of anxiety until they show otherwise; the free gift makes us feel safe and we see the stranger as friendly to which we want to please. Such a tactic won’t work on me as I know the tricks.

  2. Peter D. Wilson says:

    In the 1990s I was involved in helping to persuade the Japanese government to accept an extension to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that with good reason it believed would put Japan at a commercial disadvantage with respect to Britain and France. As a negotiating position it was agreed that these countries would forgo some of their privileges as weapon states on the principle of “equal misery”, and I had to find a way of making the misery acceptable. Fortunately I did find how to meet the requirements at relatively little cost in a way applicable to the Japanese situation; the negotiations still took several years but were eventually successful.

    On the other hand I was also involved in a series of IAEA seminars on thorium fuels. Character A had a scheme that he hoped to get recommended to if not actually imposed on a large part of the industry. I could see the point and admired A’s ingenuity, but besides the enormous cost the scheme clearly could not solve the problem at which it was supposedly aimed, even if it worked at all which I doubted on simple mechanical grounds. A couldn’t accept this and bent my ear at every subsequent meeting (shades of Cato’s “Carthago delenda est”), with no attempt to counter my objections. However, A’s project manager B was a more reasonable character with whom I eventually came to a good understanding, and I was happy to give what help I could when he wanted some work done in our facilities. It didn’t come to anything, essentially because thorium is an order of magnitude more toxic than uranium and H&S got in the way, but the will was there.

    In both situations, concessions achieved more than rigid determination.

  3. Claret says:

    Apologies for a brief intervention for the info. of Mike Horsall. I have responded on the question of world population at the end of the fertility blog.

  4. Lafu Ka says:

    “I prefer that theory to a rival one: that brain development primarily took place in females gossiping about who was being unfaithful to whom in the settlement, while the males were just grunting in the fields.”

    Otherwise known as the ‘Cavebitch’ theory. XD

    Yes, I prefer theory one.

  5. John Candido says:

    The art of rhetorical discussion has an important place in society. Every one of us has their own agenda; the need for people to come together for constructive ends is the basis of society. Enter rhetoric. Politicians, lawyers, business people, journalists, teachers, scientists, theologians etc. all play an important role in democratic societies, hence the inevitability of rhetorical discussion between people. SecondSight is a blog centred on rhetoric.

    Everybody needs to guard themselves from persuasive people, simply because we cannot read everybody’s intentions. Duplicity is almost synonymous with humanness. We all do it from time to time, even in mirth.

    The most important means of self-protection is founded on a basic education, life experience, logicality, the ability to find information, and critical thinking skills. The ability to think critically is so important that it needs highlighting. It is a skill that can be learnt either on your own by reading a good book, or by doing a short course somewhere.

    An appreciation of the difference between objectivity and subjectivity is likewise important. Humans are subjective beings. Everybody is burdened by subjectivity at times. Our thinking is laced with self-interest. Given these facts, it is a difficult enterprise to try to be more objective in life.

    In fact it is objectivity that has led human society to progress and advance. Without objectivity we could not have had reason, the epoch of the Enlightenment, the birth of science, and mathematics. I can hear John Nolan sighing right now. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment

    There is no doubt that philosophy and religion has played and continues to play, an important role in human society. We need religion, philosophy, and the humanities as much as we need everything else that is important to us. Questions about what is right or wrong, are very important and perennial. True genius is when we combine elements of science with elements of religion and philosophy, in balance with each other. When this happens, the human condition is at its happiest.

  6. Singalong says:

    My view is that llifelong education in wheeling and dealing begins with the first smile and gurgle of a baby to result in a delighted maternal response.

  7. Vincent says:

    O Singalong, how right you are! That’s just how it starts. But I am left with a little unease. What is the line between the baby’s spontaneous delight and the day that he learns that a smile will help him to get what he wants. Despite the final rationalisation, I still suspect that Quentin is concerned with the aggression of manipulation.

    • St.Joseph says:

      This may sound very ascetic but I will say it anyway. ‘Its wonderful to see how much money has been raised and still is over the last few days, and let us hope that it does not stop helping the Children in Need, but I do find it rather ironic that the unborn children are often forgotten in all this.Yes it is important to give money to help the unfortunate and it is all very much appreciated and hope it wont stop.
      One will just have to look on the SPUC web site to see the wonderful work the charity does and the money it costs to do it,and what they have achieved with so little.
      I heard to-day on the news that a glass of wine a week can harm a baby in the womb, have they thought 24 weeks of a glass of wine maybe wont kill a a baby, that’s what the law allows if not more.
      Quentins last sentence of his post is very appropriate when he says what Jesus gave us in return etc, are we really to receive Heaven because of our financial generosity.- can it be bought?
      We see children so young with all the latest technology and latest fashion it is so easy to pick up the phone and show generosity or to raise money which people do for children and their families. How much do we give of ourselves.
      If we scratch Gods back will He scratch ours and overlook what we have left undone.?
      It reminded me a little of the Parable of the widow’s mite.
      It is not difficult to throw money into the pot if one can afford it, It is in giving what we cannot afford.

      • Singalong says:

        How about Luke ch.16 v.9 “And so I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity”?
        (Jerusalem Bible)

  8. St.Joseph says:

    Singalong I am sure that all the aborted babies (our friends) with the Lord now will, welcome those into the tents of eternity, who have supported the work for the unborn under pain and suffering-even when the money fails but through continued prayer and activity.

  9. Iona says:

    With regard to reciprocity:
    “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what thanks can you expect? Even sinners lend to sinners to get back the same amount. Instead, love your enemies and do good, and lend without any hope of return” (Luke 6)

    We are expected to rise above mere reciprocity, it seems.

    As for the baby smiling at its mother, why is this wheeling and dealing rather than mutual love such as flows continually between the Father and the Son? (or so we are told).

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