In the first post in this series, we looked at the ways that marketers, ideologues, and other “compliance professionals” can manipulate people with the rule of reciprocity. This rule, hardwired into our brains, urges us to accept any gift or favor another person may offer, then also urges us to reciprocate in kind. (In case you missed that earlier post, you’ll find it helpful to read it before going on through this one.)


A recent article in Psychology Today[1] started me thinking about the rule of reciprocity in a different light. The article describes the many benefits of eating tasty food, such as strawberries and chocolate. In addition to the actual biochemical effects of the food itself, the very pleasure of eating it not only lifts one’s mood but also stimulates many physiological processes that benefit neuroendocrine, inflammatory, immunological, and cardiovascular systems.


And in addition to these individual benefits, sharing food with others benefits the pair or group, promoting civilization and culture, helping people bond and form friendships, and even helping children succeed in school and later life.


But what if you are engaged in negotiations, or some other form of consensus-seeking interaction, with another person, and he offers to treat you to lunch? Have you been set up? If you refuse to accept the lunch, you break the first part of the rule of reciprocity and risk offending the person. But if you accept the lunch, you subject yourself to the pull of the second part of the rule of reciprocity. Specifically, you might then agree to a request by the other person for something that is not in your best interests.


And what if you are the one who invites the other person to lunch? Is this unethical? Will the other person think that you are trying to manipulate him, and therefore, resent you?


In my opinion, the relationship advantages of sharing a meal, or even a snack or beverage, outweigh any such danger, provided that you think about what you are doing. If you are on the receiving end of the invitation, remember that the rule of reciprocity evolved for the purpose of encouraging us to reciprocate in kind for a gift or favor. This means reciprocating with a return gift or favor of similar nature and value. A free lunch is not similar, in nature or value, to entering into a major contract. A free dinner is not similar, in nature or value, to sleeping with your date.


Here are some ways you can accept that invitation, and enjoy all the mutual benefits of sharing food, without giving in to an inequitable request by the other person:


  • The other person invites you to dinner. Make your acceptance conditional on the other person’s accepting your offer for the future. “Okay, you get dinner, and I’ll buy the movie tickets.” Or, “I’d love to be your guest for dinner, and I’d like you to be my guest next Friday. How about it?”

If your companion hesitates or refuses to accept your offer, he may be trying to obtain an advantage over you. As Dr. Cialdini[2] suggested with respect to “free gifts” enclosed with solicitation letters, define the dinner offer not as a gift, but a possible weapon of manipulation. Then feel no guilt about accepting it without giving in to any objectionable requests he may make. After all, he broke the first part of the rule by refusing your offer of a reciprocal favor.

  • The other person is a coworker who comes into your office with his coffee cup, and another cup of coffee for you, just the way you like it. Reciprocate in-kind on the spot by pulling out a couple of pieces of the candy you keep stashed in your desk for just such occasions. “Looky here, I’ve got the perfect thing to go with that coffee.”
  • Accept the shared food, and if the other person requests something of a different nature or greater value, or if you feel any hesitation or uneasiness whatsoever, simply say that you would like to think about it and get back to him. You can decide in your own good time whether accepting his request is in your best interests, and if it is not, you also have time to think of a return gift or favor that is of comparable value and does not violate your own interests.

Remember, the rule of reciprocation, and other compliance tactics we’ll see in future posts, urge us to say “yes” without thinking. You can go a long way by simply taking a think break. Once again, if the other person objects to your taking time to think, or tries to pressure you into an immediate decision, you know the meal was a manipulative trick, and you need feel no guilt about refusing an unreasonable request.

You’ll find more tips on gracefully requesting a think break, and what to think about during that break, in Bridges to Consensus, chapter 9.


Now suppose that you would like to offer the meal, snack or whatever. The other person is someone you want to, or have to, deal with in the future, in other words, someone with whom you will have a relationship. You don’t want to appear manipulative, nor do you want him to feel uncomfortably beholden.


One option is to suggest separate checks. If you don’t want to be manipulative, but would like for both of you to benefit from the mood-enhancing, civility-generating effects of sharing food, there’s no need to treat. Simply sharing the food does the job.


If you companion still seems hesitant, or says he would like to buy the meal, reverse some of the practices recommended above when the shoe was on the other foot: “I’ll get the dinner if you get the movie tickets.” Or, “I’ll treat today, and you treat next Tuesday, okay?”


Just because the rule of reciprocity can be used in devious ways, that doesn’t mean we should stop giving and accepting gifts and favors. After all, the reason reciprocity is wired into our brains is that, in the majority of cases, it facilitates civilized dealings and good relationships. All that’s required here, as in any consensus-seeking interaction, is a bit of mindfulness.


[1] Aaron Slater, “A Palate for Pleasure,” Psychology Today: Feb. 2012

[2] Robert B. Cialdini, Inflluence—the Psychology of Persuasion, Quill, William Morrow, 1984