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SCARS™ Psychology of Scams: Reciprocity Rule & Scams

Definition Of Reciprocity

In social psychology, reciprocity is a social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions, they are frequently much nastier and even brutal.

Reciprocity is also a technique of Social Engineering.

We See Two Immediate Examples Of This In The World Of Scams:

  1. Scam victims respond to the initial exchange of information with more information
  2. Haters and trolls go nuclear when confronted

Introduction To Reciprocity

Reciprocity makes it possible to build continuing relationships and exchanges. In some cases, this can happen quickly.

Fukuyama states that “If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly, they must coexist within certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning” (p. 11). He goes on to say “Law, contract, and economic rationality and prosperity…. must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust…. The latter are not anachronisms in a modern society but rather the sine qua non of the latter’s success” (p. 11) According to the sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1960), this norm is nearly universal, and only a few members of society—the very young, the sick, or the old—are exempt from it.

This Reciprocity can form the basis for the initial tendencies towards trust of a stranger in the early stages of a scam and can be used in the ongoing manipulation of scam victims.

Reciprocal actions differ from altruistic actions in that reciprocal actions only follow from others’ initial actions, while altruism is the unconditional act of social gift-giving without any hope or expectation of future positive responses. Some distinguish between ideal altruism (giving with no expectation of future reward) and reciprocal altruism (giving with the limited expectation or the potential for an expectation of future reward).  [For more information on this idea, see altruism or altruism (ethics) in Wikipedia.]

In this article, we will explore both Reciprocity and its role in the scammer’s manipulation of the victim


An Adaptive Mechanism

Scientists Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin attribute the very nature of humans to reciprocity.

They claim humans survived because our ancestors learned to share goods and services “in an honored network of obligation”. Thus, the idea that humans are indebted to repay gifts and favors is a unique aspect of human culture. Cultural anthropologists support this idea in what they call the “web of indebtedness” where reciprocity is viewed as an adaptive mechanism to enhance survival. Within this approach, reciprocity creates an interdependent environment where labor is divided so that humans may be more efficient.

For example, if one member of the group cares for the children while another member hunts for food for the group, each member has provided a service and received one in return. Each member can devote more time and attention to his or her allotted task and the whole group benefits. This meant that individuals could give away resources without actually giving them away. Through the rule of reciprocity, sophisticated systems of aid and trade were possible bringing immense benefits to the societies that utilized them. Given the benefits of reciprocity at the societal level, it is not surprising that the norm has persisted and dictates our present cognition and behavior.

In the context of scams, it represents a power to pull in the victims through small acts of expressed kindness, such as complements, listening & attention, and sharing their own secrets (even if later determined to be fake). Even that act of (supposedly) allowing the victim to sends a gift (such as money) can be considered an act that further controls the victim, inducing a reciprical action – usually in the form of trust.

The Power Of Reciprocity

Reciprocity is not only a strong determining factor of human behavior; it is a powerful method for gaining a person’s compliance with a request.

The rule of reciprocity has the power to trigger feelings of indebtedness even when faced with an uninvited favor and irrespective of liking the person who executed the favor.

In 1971, Dennis Regan tested the strength of these two aspects of reciprocity in a study where participants believed they were in an art appreciation experiment with a partner, “Joe”, who was really Regan’s assistant. During the experiment, Joe would disappear and bring back a soft drink for the participant. After this phase of the experiment was over, Joe would ask the participant to buy raffle tickets from him. The more the participants liked Joe, the more likely they were to buy raffle tickets from