The Big Bang Theory of Reciprocity

Across much of the world, it’s the holiday season and for most people the biggest holiday of them all is Christmas. Some celebrate Christmas as the season of joy and peace. For others, it’s the season of love and for many more it’s the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

A huge part of celebrating Christmas is Santa Claus, Christmas trees and holiday music. In some stores Christmas music started around Halloween! Of course, the holiday season represents the bulk of sales for many retail stores, sometimes accounting for as much as 70% of their annual sales!  A successful holiday season is a matter of economic survival for many stores.

All of this leads to another Christmas tradition – gift giving. The television show The Big Bang Theory had an excellent skit on the exchange of gifts, where Sheldon feels pressure because Penny got him a Christmas present. Here’s some of their exchange.

  • Sheldon: You bought me a present?
  • Penny: Yes.
  • Sheldon: Why would you do such a thing?
  • Penny: I don’t know, because it’s Christmas.
  • Sheldon: No Penny, I know you’re thinking you’re being generous but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation.
  • Penny: Honey, it’s okay, you don’t have to give me anything in return.
  • Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as the gift you’ve given me. Gosh, no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.

It’s a very funny scene so if you’d like to watch the clip click here. The skit does hit the rule of reciprocity fairly well. This principle of influence tells us people feel obligated to give back to those who have first given to us. We also feel we should respond in kind so Sheldon was responding to a lifetime of conditioning when he felt like he had to match Penny’s gift.

We also see reciprocity at work in another of the Christmas traditions – exchanging holiday cards. Have you ever gotten a Christmas card in the mail from someone not on your list? How did you feel? I bet the majority of you reading this would respond in one of two ways:

  1. Get a card in the mail to the other person right away, or
  2. Add the person to your mailing list for next year.

Why do we respond this way? Because we’d feel socially awkward around the other person if we didn’t get them a card or gift and they took note of that.

We are so conditioned by reciprocity that we even respond when we don’t really want to. Here are some examples:

  • You’re at the mall and someone shoves something in your face and begins asking you questions. You respond – even though you’re rather they not do that – saying, “No thanks” when in reality you’re not thankful.
  • You get mailing labels in the mail and you respond to these “gifts” by sending the charitable organization money.
  • You’re out for drinks with friends and have had enough and are ready to go home but you stick around to buy one more round of drinks because you don’t want to be seen as having several drinks and not paying for a round yourself.

But there’s good news in all this. Sheldon wasn’t 100% accurate in the skit. He said suicide rates skyrocket this time of year and that’s not true. According the NYU Lagone Medical Center, “The media often links suicides during this time of year to the ‘holiday blues.’ However, various studies have shown no relationship between depression and suicide, and the holiday season. In fact, researchers found that depression rates and suicides actually drop during the winter months and peak in the spring.”

So, while it may be the season to reciprocate, don’t buy gifts and send cards this time of year under penalty of death. However, beware, you might feel awkward around some people if you break the rule of reciprocity but that feeling will pass eventually.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE. His Lynda.com course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 100,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it to learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT® on FacebookBrian Ahearn, CMCT® on GoogleBrian Ahearn, CMCT® on LinkedinBrian Ahearn, CMCT® on TwitterBrian Ahearn, CMCT® on Youtube
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer at influencePEOPLE
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is a sales trainer, coach and consultant whose specialty is applying persuasion and influence in sales and customer service situations. He is one of 20 individuals in the world who currently hold the CMCT designation. Brian’s blog, Influence PEOPLE, is followed by people in 200 countries and made the Online Psychology Degree Guide Top 30 Psychology Blogs in 2012.
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *