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It’s a quaint and understandable fallacy to think that we do things out of the goodness of our hearts.  The truth is that almost always there is an underlying incentive at work that pushes us to act in a certain way.  Even something as spotless as altruism can easily be incentivized by a desire to look like a good person to others who know about our altruistic deeds.  Or even simpler, altruism can be incentivized by the positive feeling that acting altruistically evokes.  Incentives, can be rather wholesome and good, but they can also be sneaky, convoluted and nearly invisible.


One sly trick is to use the law of reciprocity to create incentive in another.  Say for example a person wants to take an extra day off work in the upcoming weeks and needs to ask the boss for time off.  It’s perhaps a crap shoot to just simply ask.  More devious, and perhaps just wiser, is to first curry favor with the boss.  The phrase means to create incentive reciprocity.  By being initially generous we preempt the receiver of our generosity to be generous in turn due to the law of reciprocity.  The law of reciprocity states simply that when given something we naturally feel impelled to return the favor.  The law of reciprocity incentivizes us to give back.  You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back.  This is just a fact of human beings that is fairly well baked into our hardware.  Before asking the boss for a favor, it’s wise to go out of one’s way to help out the boss.  Once this is done there’s a trailing thread in the boss’s mind that he needs to pay back a favor.


Nowhere is such reciprocal incentive more depressingly portrayed than in political dramas, be they about actual governments or quasi-governmental structures like the mob.  Money is often the incentive, taking the form of a favor paid for.  In these environments relationships seem to be purely transactional.  Business also has this flavor, as with the catchall explanation for behavior: hey, it’s just business.  Incentive in these worlds is fairly cold, calculated and straightforward, despite how much denial might surround the fact.


The surprise is that these structures of incentive and reciprocity exist in every relationship no matter how formal or intimate.  It’s the loving relationships that feel particularly uncomfortable and even sacrilegious to apply a perspective of incentive and reciprocity.  But such discomfort  either assumes that any presence of incentive is bad which is naive, or, the worry is that we are perhaps not as purely incentivized in our more precious relationships as we like to believe, and would rather not look for fear of what we might find.

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 1019: Incentivized Reciprocity

Tinkered Thinking

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