SCARS™ Psychology of Scams: Reciprocity Rule & Scams

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 him. Does this sound similar to scams? However, when Joe had given them a soda and thus indebted them to reciprocate, it made no difference whether the participants liked Joe or not, the rule of reciprocity overpowered liking. Thus, individuals who we might not even like have the power to greatly increase our chances of doing them a favor simply by providing us with a small gift or favor prior to their request. Furthermore, we are obliged to receive these gifts and favors which reduces our ability to choose to whom we wish to be indebted.

In 1976, Phillip Kunz demonstrated the automatic nature of reciprocity in an experiment using Christmas cards. In this experiment, Kunz sent out holiday cards with pictures of his family and a brief note to a group of complete strangers. While he expected some reaction, holiday cards came pouring back to him from people who had never met nor heard of him and who expressed no desire to get to know him any better. The majority of these individuals who responded never inquired into Kunz’s identity, they were merely responding to his initial gesture with a reciprocal action.

In Politics

Politics is another area where the power of reciprocity is evident. While politicians often claim autonomy from the feelings of obligation associated with gifts and favors that influence everyone else, they are also susceptible. In a study of the 2002 election, U.S. Congress Representatives who received the most money from special interest groups were over seven times more likely to vote in favor of the group that had contributed the most money to their campaigns.


Fehr and Gächter (2000) showed that, when acting within reciprocal frameworks, individuals are more likely to deviate from purely self-interested behavior than when acting in other social contexts. Magnanimity is often repaid with disproportionate amounts of kindness and cooperation, and treachery with disproportionate amounts of hostility and vengeance, which can significantly surpass amounts determined or predicted by conventional economic models of rational self-interest. Moreover, reciprocal tendencies are frequently observed in situations wherein transaction costs associated with specific reciprocal actions are high and present or future material rewards are not expected.

Whether self-interested or reciprocal action dominates the aggregate outcome is particularly dependent on context; scam-scenarios characterized by initial distrust and incomplete knowledge of the “other”, reciprocity tends to win out over self-interest and so begins the downfall of the victim.

Positive And Negative Reciprocity

Positive Reciprocity

Positive Reciprocity occurs when an action committed by one individual that has a positive effect on someone else is returned with an action that has an approximately equal positive effect.

For example, if someone takes care of another person’s dog, the person who received this favor should then return this action with another favor such as with a small gift. However, the reciprocated action should be approximately equal to the first action in terms of positive value, otherwise, this can result in an uncomfortable social situation. If someone takes care of another person’s dog and that person returns the favor by buying that individual a car, the reciprocated gift is inappropriate because it does not equal the initial gesture. Individuals expect actions to be reciprocated by actions that are approximately equal in value.

In the scamming context, scammers engage in small reciprocal responses so as to not “spook” their victims. It is also part of the reason why, when to start to ask for money, they start with small amounts – since in the early stages reciprocity plays a significant role in motivating the victim to continue forward.

Another example of positive reciprocity is that waitresses who smile broadly receive more tips than waitresses who present a minimal smile. Also, free samples are not merely opportunities to taste a product but rather invitations to engage in the rule of reciprocity. Many people find it difficult to accept a free sample and walk away. Instead, they buy some of the products even when they did not find it that enjoyable.

Negative Reciprocity

Negative Reciprocity occurs when an action that has a negative effect on someone is returned with an action that has an approximately equal negative effect. For example, if an individual commits a violent act against a person, it is expected that the person would return with a similar act of violence.

If, however, the reaction to the initial negative action is not approximately equal in negative value, this violates the norm of reciprocity and what is prescribed as allowable. Retaliatory aspects i.e. the aspects of trying to get back and cause harm, are known as negative reciprocity.

This definition of negative reciprocity is distinct from the way negative reciprocity is defined in other domains. In cultural anthropology, negative reciprocity refers to an attempt to get something for nothing. It is often referred to as “bartering” or “haggling.”

Reciprocal Concessions

There are more subtle ways of initiating the reciprocity rule than merely doing something nice for someone so you may expect something in return.

One form of this more subtle form of reciprocity is the idea of reciprocal concessions in which the requester lowers his/her initial request, making the respondent more likely to agree to a second request. Under the rule of reciprocity, we are obligated to concede to someone who has made a concession to us. That is, if an individual starts off by requesting something large and you refuse, you feel obligated to consent to their smaller request even though you might not be interested in either of the things they are offering.

Robert Cialdini illustrates an example of this phenomenon by telling a story of a boy who asks him to buy five-dollar circus tickets and, when Cialdini refuses, asks him to buy some one dollar chocolate bars. Cialdini feels obligated to return the favor and consents to buying some of the chocolate bars.

  • The rule of reciprocity operates in reciprocal concessions in two ways. First, an individual is pressured to reciprocate one concession for another by nature of the rule itself.
  • Second, because the individual who initially concedes can expect to have the other person concede in return, this person is free to make the concession in the first place.

If there were no social pressure to return the concession, an individual runs the risk of giving up something and getting nothing in return. Mutual concession is a procedure that can promote compromise in a group so that individuals can refocus their efforts toward achieving a common goal. Reciprocal concessions promote compromise in a group so that the initial and incompatible desires of individuals can be set aside for the benefit of social cooperation. But it can and does also work in the context of scams.

The Door In The Face Technique

The door in the face technique, otherwise known as the rejection-then-retreat technique, involves making an outrageous request that someone will almost certainly turn down, and then make the smaller request that was the favor of interest (the goal) all along.

If done skillfully, the second request is seen as a concession so compliance with the second request is obtained more easily. However, anyone (such as scammers) must proceed with caution when using this technique. If the first request is so big that it is seen as unreasonable, the “door in the face technique” proves useless as the concession made after since it is not perceived as genuine. The door in the face technique is not to be confused with the foot in the door technique where individuals getting a person to agree with a large request by first getting them to agree to a moderate request.

Look At Your Own Scam Experience

Can you see in your own scam experience where reciprocity applied?

Here are some examples of reciprocity in the scam lifecycle.

  • Complements – appearance, dress, hair, other things
  • Acts of verbal kindness
  • Allowing the victim to trust the scammer
  • Allowing the victim to send money
  • Intently listening to the victim
  • Allowing the victim to participate in future plans or direct them
  • Approval of the victim’s own behaviors that the victim expressed concern over
  • Receiving poems and stories
  • Listening and approving of tastes in music, art, books, etc.

Can you think of more examples? Post them in a comment below!


As you can see, the levels of manipulation at the beginning and throughout scams, especially romance scams, are extensive. As a result of these and other Social Engineering techniques, most victims are powerless to stop a scam until it has run its course.

The tragedy is that most victims blame themselves instead of realizing that they were the victims of both expert-level manipulation and their own human psychology. Thus once the initial conversation begins almost all victims are blameless and guiltless, regardless of what they believe.

Understanding this and accepting it can dramatically reduce the long-term impact and help victims recover from these traumatic experiences much more quickly.


TAGS: SCARS, Important Article, Information About Scams, Anti-Scam, Reciprocity Rule, Psychology of Scams, Victim Psychology, Scammer Manipulation, Manipulative Techniques, Scam Education, Self-Support, Scam Recovery.

Portions from Wikipedia and multiple sources.


SCARS the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Incorporated


Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.
A U.S. Based Crime Victims Assistance Nonprofit Organization





The Latest SCARS Posts:



– – –

Tell us about your experiences with Romance Scammers in our
« Scams Discussion Forum on Facebook »

– – –

FAQ: How Do You Properly Report Scammers?

It is essential that law enforcement knows about scams & scammers, even though there is nothing (in most cases) that they can do.

Always report scams involving money lost or where you received money to:

  1. Local Police – ask them to take an “informational” police report – say you need it for your insurance
  2. U.S. State Police (if you live in the U.S.) – they will take the matter more seriously and provide you with more help than local police
  3. Your National Police or FBI « »
  4. The SCARS|CDN™ Cybercriminal Data Network – Worldwide Reporting Network on « »

This helps your government understand the problem, and allows law enforcement to add scammers on watch lists worldwide.

– – –

To learn more about SCARS visit « »

Please be sure to report all scammers
on « »







This content and other material contained on the website, apps, newsletter, and products (“Content”), is general in nature and for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical, legal, or financial advice; the Content is not intended to be a substitute for licensed or regulated professional advice. Always consult your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider, lawyer, financial or tax professional with any questions you may have regarding the educational information contained herein. SCARS makes no guarantees about the efficacy of information described on or in SCARS’s Content. The information contained are subject to change and are not intended to cover all possible situations or effects. SCARS does not recommend or endorse any specific professional or care provider, product, service, or other information that may be mentioned in SCARS’s websites, apps, and Content unless explicitly identified as such.

The disclaimers herein are provided on this page for ease of reference. These disclaimers supplement and are a part of SCARS’s websites Terms of Use

Legal Notices: 

All original content is Copyright © 1991 – 2020 Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc. (D.B.A SCARS) All Rights Reserved Worldwide & Webwide. Third-party copyrights acknowledge.

SCARS, SCARS|INTERNATIONAL, SCARS, SCARS|SUPPORT, SCARS, RSN, Romance Scams Now, SCARS|WORLDWIDE, SCARS|GLOBAL, SCARS, Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams, Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams, SCARS|ANYSCAM, Project Anyscam, Anyscam, SCARS|GOFCH, GOFCH, SCARS|CHINA, SCARS|CDN, SCARS|UK, SCARS|LATINOAMERICA, SCARS|MEMBER, SCARS|VOLUNTEER, SCARS Cybercriminal Data Network, Cobalt Alert, Scam Victims Support Group, are all trademarks of Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

Contact the law firm for the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Incorporated by email at

Share This Information - Choose Your Social Media!

Leave A Comment