When Generosity is Used to Trap

“Make no mistake, human societies derive a truly significant competitive advantage from the reciprocity rule, and, consequently, they make sure their members are trained to comply with and believe in it... Because there is a general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return… we will often be taken by individuals who stand to gain from our indebtedness.”

- Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini

Generosity.  It’s easy to hear this word and only associate it with good things (especially in the world of personal finance).  Today, however, we are stepping into some dark mental territory. 

I’d much rather travel around looking for the best in people.  But only looking for the best in people has naively landed me in shock a couple of times.

A Smiling Sitting Duck

If you are into psychology, you've probably heard about how we experience the world like a mirror.  For the most part, I’m a simple person with benign intentions. This leads me to see benign intentions in others.  

It also makes me look like a sitting duck.  

If you are a young woman in entertainment, you can easily attract more than your fair share of people to talk over you, at you, above you, around you, and down at you.  Luckily, I managed to find a partner who talks WITH me (and I’ve gotten a little savvier over the years about spotting narcissistic predators after naive rodents).

Calling All Salesy Baloney

While on a mission to become better at marketing (because I want to eventually sell some history songs), I’ve learned about...

  • Sales funnels
  • Faking scarcity to spotlight an item (Tickle Me Elmo!)
  • Timing (“It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” - Leonardo Da Vinci knew a thing or two about marketing)
  • Social Proof
  • Sunken Cost Fallacies
  • And the Rule of "Uninvited Indebtedness"

I’ve also learned about incredibly expensive marketing lists containing consumer information.  For example, if you recently bought one item, your eyes and ears are highly coveted by someone who could sell a complimentary item.  These lists are running the world, big companies are selling them back and forth for boo koo bucks, and most of the population has no idea (at least I didn't, until now).

I may never generate massive online profits from my history niche (I'm not willing to buy your name off a list after you’ve watched PBS).  But I will walk away from this deep dive of knowledge with information to protect myself and my family against online targeting.

Calling All Frugal Door Mats

“Although the obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit.  An obligation to receive reduces our ability to choose those to whom we wish to be indebted...” 

- Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini

I’ve been a frugal doormat.  Maybe you have too. Consider the below situation.

“I’ve given you free drinks, free music, lamp oil, and the gift of my presence.  You MUST stick around to listen to ME. Reject me and I will list off everything I have ever donated, given, and sponsored (including the ant I didn’t kill when I scooped it up in a cup and put it outside).  And don’t you know I recycle? What about the job I helped you get by answering two questions? You owe me your attention FOREVER.”

“Ummm… I just thought I was getting free snacks. Ummm… (looking around)...  I didn’t know I was signing up for this exchange.”

Here’s a far less dramatic example: 

Early in our relationship, my husband and I went to a home show.  We stood around amongst the shingle displays, model kitchens, and composting toilets while eating a contractor's cheese and crackers.  While snacking, my husband was compelled to sign up to win a free kitchen remodel (even though we didn’t own a house yet). He handed over his email and phone number.

Five hundred phone calls later, he still couldn’t get his phone number off the list.  We were called repeatedly for estimates on a kitchen remodel. He finally had to tell them, “I don’t even own a house!  Please leave me alone!”

Calling All Test Dolls

Cheese and crackers aside, should you be suspicious of all nice gestures?  Certainly not.  Sometimes people - be they friends, acquaintances, or relatives - will discount their prices because they are trying out new techniques on you. 

I’ve done this with beauty treatments and yoga classes hosted by friends. These have been good experiences for the most part.  At one event, I ended up as a human pretzel while my yogi friend was docked points for laughing.  (Luckily, she still obtained her certification.) 

Sometimes, however, people may discount their prices because they know deep down no one wants to tolerate their behavior. 

This could be extreme disorganization, a personality flaw, or an actual crappy product.  If this is worth it to you, then you are in neutral territory.  If not, at least spot it for what it is; potential emotional or physical crud coming from someone who thinks you are too nice to notice. 

(In an upcoming post I will talk about receiving free hair products for being in a hair show.  I couldn’t use the free products though because THEY CUT OFF ALL MY HAIR.)

Calling All Big Tippers?

If you are in a situation where you accept tips (waitress, musician, etc.), someone may want something more from you when they tip you a lot (while other people simply tip you a lot because they think it’s the right thing to do). 

Naturally, you want big tips no matter what, so this puts you in an odd situation. For example, maybe as a young woman, a man tips you because he thinks then he can stand around for a long time and talk to you. While you are annoyed, you may think, “Well, at least he tipped me.”

For the most part, I was naive as a young woman.  I didn’t realize generosity could be misused for a long time.  Since I also wasn’t great with the nuances of social rules, I just walked away in the above situations.

Adios Dark Human Nature!

Overall, this post contains a simple message.  Some of the ugliest things I have ever learned about human nature, I have learned from people who tout generosity like a flag.  Beware.  Sometimes generosity is used to trap.

Now, with my sudden insight into the darkness of humanity, I’m trying to set up my life so I don’t have to depend on anything from anyone.  This is probably an extreme overreaction.  Eventually, I will find a middle ground (and a healthy perspective on accepting generosity).  

On this blog, you'll find I give you a song in exchange for your email.  It's pretty simple. I don’t expect anything else.  You can back out at any time. 

Furthermore, if someone comments on an article of yours, don’t feel like you have to buy their course.  If someone is trying to stick it to you by being extra nice to someone else, feel sorry for both of them.  It just looks weird.  And if someone gives you free knowledge?  Support where and when you'd like.

"I don't want to be held in your debt...

I don't want to take what you can give

I would rather starve than eat your bread

All the things that others want from me

Can't buy what I want because it's free"

-Eddie Vedder in the song Corduroy

Have you heard about the marketing tactic of gently pressuring others by giving away something first?  What do you think of it?

Have you ever been in a situation where generosity was used suspiciously?



4 Replies to “When Generosity is Used to Trap”

  1. mrs. me was in the music business working for a famous artist. people used to send stuff to the office all the time. i’m sure some were just super fans and genuine and others wanted something. most of the time the staff just got the stuff, especially if it was something good to eat or drink.

    i’ve always viewed things through a little bit of cynical lens from an early age so i was wary of unexpected gifts from strangers. when i worked in a bar for tips i always just remembered rule #1 to get the money. i remember picking up a lunch tab for some friends when we were younger and they didn’t know what to make of that. it was only about 30 bucks for 4 people and i felt like doing it because i had a better job than them at the time. welcome to the seedy underbelly.

    1. I would really love to know what artist your wife was working with. I imagine you left that detail out for a reason. (Also – how funny – all the people who ate the food intended for the star!) I do think some people are full of good vibes and genuinely want to express that. I am a superfan. However, I don’t expect anything in return.

      I’m trying to shed my cynical lens. But I remember occasionally how evolution put it there for a reason – to keep us on our toes and keep us alive, aware, finding the correct group/tribe, etc. Best wishes in the seedy underbelly!

        1. Now I’m presuming your wife worked with Ani Difranco, so I really want your wife to write some blog posts about art and business. (I think I’ve requested blog posts from her before because she sounds like such a stellar lady. If she wants to stick with making physical art instead of writing I guess that is OK. But tell her she already has a fan:)

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