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.