Favors for Strangers

Continuing with the idea of reciprocity Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little Change a Lot, reviews two studies, one by Dennis Regan and another study M.E. Schneider, which deal with finding the best balance between helping others, and receiving positive results from the favors you provide.  In regards to favors Wiseman writes the following (emphasis mine):

 

“Favors have their strongest effect when they occur between people who don’t know each other very well, and when they are small but thoughtful.  When people go to a great deal of effort to help someone else, the recipient can often feel an uncomfortable pressure to reciprocate.  In a sense by giving too much at the beginning, one person places the other in a difficult position because the law of reciprocity states that the recipient has to give even more in return.  Motivation is also important, as recipients can often experience a drop in self-esteem if they think they are bing helped because they are believed not to have the ability to be successful by themselves, or if they attribute the favor to an ulterior motive.”

 

I am drawn to this quote because it shows that we can not go about greatly influencing the behaviors of others simply by performing favors for them.  The science indicates that we can  make a lasting impression for someone by performing small acts of kindness, making the other person want to reciprocate positive actions back to us.  The research also seems to reveal that people are uncomfortable with large favors, because it puts them in an awkward and unexpected position.  Finding a balance where you perform small favors can help you boost your relationships be creating stronger bonds and friendships with people willing to assist you when you need a hand.

 

Wiseman’s section on reciprocity also shows that people can sense the motives behind favors.  A congressional approach to friendship and relationships (a you scratch my back I scratch your back, or in congress you vote for my bill, I’ll vote for your bill) is not a strong way to build friends and influence others.  Providing favors because you are expecting others to then do something positive for you is going to leave you without friends as others will see your underlying motive. Ultimately this will leave you with no reciprocated goodness, and no friends.

 

Another idea that I was drawn to from Wiseman’s thoughts on reciprocity is the idea of empowering others and performing genuine favors.  When others sense that you are doing favors for them because you don’t believe they can handle the situation on their own, you damage their self confidence and insult them.  I think of a young teenager who does not have the opportunity to make his or her own decisions because their parent is constantly acting for them.  The teenager may just want to have the chance to display their own competence, but the actions of their parent are leaving them without an opportunity to apply themselves.  By acting in ways that we think are favors for others, but actually limit their participation and self implementation we may doing more harm than good.  I believe Wiseman would argue that this contributes to the idea of simple favors having a greater impact than large favors.
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