Reciprocity and Resentment: Was Robert Cialdini Wrong?

There are about 50 different reasons that I didn’t want to write this piece, but it’s been on my mind for weeks. The primary fear is that I’ll come off as a whiner, but I promise, if you stay until the conclusion of this piece, it has a happy, optimistic ending.

As a writer and content creator, there are many who say that you should document your experience as you learn because others might dig that type of content. I also learned something very valuable when I got sober back in 2012, which is that our experience can actually help others. If it weren’t for other people sharing their stories of perseverance and hope, who knows if I would have stayed sober, so maybe this piece will help others who can relate. And finally, writing can be extremely therapeutic.

So maybe, I’ll be able to kill three birds with one stone by writing about my experience and what’s been on my mind.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a ruminator. Maybe it’s because of my addictive and obsessive mind, but once I latch onto something, it’s hard to get it out until I find a resolution. Recently, what I’ve been ruminating on is the idea of reciprocity. Robert Cialdini, the father of the psychology of influence and persuasion, says that one of the most successful forms of influence is reciprocity. When we take a look at the evolutionary reasons for this, it makes perfect sense as well. But I’ve been ruminating on this because I don’t think reciprocity is nearly as effective as we think, and my experience has made me want to write an angry letter to Cialdini that he’d probably never read.

Something that gives me some hope is that Ethan Kross’ book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It has taught me that rumination can be a good thing. And unlike the idea of reciprocity, I have seen the benefits from rumination many times.

What am I talking about? I don’t like using the label of “entrepreneur” because I think of those 20-something guys who post ridiculous motivational memes on Instagram all day, but I guess that’s what I am. Currently, I work for myself, and as a father, that can be stressful. As I mentioned in my previous piece My Personal Quest to Succeed Without Being Annoying or Creepy, I work my ass off, so I have a lot of data that really contradicts the theory of reciprocity and cooperation.

But before we explain the theory behind reciprocity, I want to showcase a little bit of self-awareness.

On September 1st, I was laid off from my job of two years without warning. I left on good terms and the reason for being let go was due to a combination of business slowing due to COVID and a shift in the business, but I have a lot of resentments about how it went down. Aside from that, dealing with unemployment has been a nightmare.

With that said, I’m aware that the stress and uncertainty of being newly unemployed may be shaping my perception about this entire situation in a negative way. But, I’m doing some work to figure that out. This morning I went to a 12-step meeting and hopefully my therapist and I can figure some of this out as well.

Why Reciprocity “Works”

For those who haven’t read Cialdini’s famous book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he’s researched influence for years and conducted many studies. In the book, he breaks it down into chapters of methods of influence like social proof, authority, scarcity, and more. As you’ve probably guessed, we’re going to focus on reciprocity.

Reciprocity is actually the first “weapon of influence” Cialdini discusses. Based on his research, reciprocity is a powerful tool. The idea is that if I give you something, you’ll feel indebted to me and are likely to reciprocate. Companies utilize this tool all the time, and we should all be aware of it to avoid being manipulated by free stuff.

I’m a nerd for evolutionary psychology, and this intuitively makes complete sense based on how we evolved for cooperation. Cooperation is what helped us get to the top of the food chain and why we work so well in groups. A great way to induce cooperation is to help others. The idea is that we evolved for reciprocity because one of the best strategies for cooperation is “tit for tat”, which has been seen in many variations of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma experiments.

If we don’t reciprocate, we’re wired to feel a little guilty, and I know this from experience. My first AA sponsor spent hours upon hours with me helping me stay sober, and I felt awful that I couldn’t ever do for him what he did for me.

This is also one of the reasons there’s regularly a debate about altruism. If we’re evolutionarily designed for reciprocity, do we ever do things out of the kindness of our hearts? Recently, I spoke with Nichola Raihini on the podcast about her fantastic new book The Social Instinct, and she helped explain how altruism really works.

Reasons to be Skeptical of the Theory of Reciprocity

I live in Las Vegas, and if you’ve ever been, you know that casinos love giving away free stuff. They comp rooms, tickets to shows, buffets, and so much more. Are they doing this because they’re just the nicest people on earth? Of course not. They’re hoping that by giving you free stuff, not only will you think they’re super nice, but you’ll hopefully blow even more money at the slot machines or tables.

Casinos and large companies who do this make billions of dollars a year, so reciprocity works, right? Well, aside from my personal experience, I’m skeptical. Las Vegas is also the host of many conferences, and if you’ve ever been, you leave with more pens and nick-nacks than you can handle, and there’s a good chance you didn’t end up spending a penny with 99% of those places. And if you’ve never been to a conference, think about all the free samples you’ve taken at Costco or other places and didn’t end up buying that item or spending much money.

I’ve worked in marketing for years, and the old quote from John Wanamaker is very true:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”

Put your scientist cap on for a second and put yourself in the position of one of these casinos or businesses. How would you know for certain that reciprocity was the key ingredient to profits? It’d be pretty hard because even if you surveyed the people who spend money, how many would admittedly say, “I did it for free stuff.” But I’m not going to dive into all of the reasons we need to be skeptical of research, so if you want to learn more, I highly suggest you check out books like Science Fictions, Calling Bullshit, and The Data Detective.

Note: Two of these three authors have also been on my podcast, and the third will be on soon if you want to check those out.

Now, it’s time for my personal experience.

Reciprocity is a Joke

In my active addiction, I never did anything out of the kindness of my heart. I was always keeping tabs. The only reason I’d help you is to get something in return. When I got sober, I learned about “self-seeking” and how it was fueling my resentments. So, something I’ve worked on, since getting sober in 2012, is to do things without expecting anything in return. While it’s much better than it used to be, I still get resentments. Later in this piece, I’ll give my theory as to why it may be impossible to never fully be rid of this type of resentment.

I really haven’t noticed my resentments and dwelling about reciprocity until I got laid off and now there’s a ton of pressure. I’ve been writing, making YouTube videos, doing the podcast, and creating other forms of content for years. But when you have a steady job, it’s easy to just have it as a hobby and do it for the love of creating.

When it becomes your new primary source of income, and you need to support your family and yourself, it changes.

I’ve been re-reading a ton of my favorite books on entrepreneurship and making an income from your writing and content. Currently, I’m reading one of my favorite books for the second time, The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman. One of my favorite pieces of advice is that she says to be a good member of the writer community. This too leans on the idea of reciprocity, and it makes sense. To be a good member of the community, you read the work of other writers and you promote their content.

Jane isn’t the only one either. Entrepreneur extraordinaire and motivational guru Gary Vaynerchuk has written two books with a similar idea. In his books The Thank You Economy and Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, this is a key component of his advice. I absolutely love the work of Jane, Gary, and many others, but I do think there’s a major survivorship bias and possible flaws in the research much like Cialdini’s book.

I think any researcher or successful person pushing this idea would be interested in the data from my results. Some of the methods they suggest that I’ve tried include:

  • Publish a weekly reading list promoting authors

  • Sharing good content from other creators (writers, podcasters, YouTubers, etc)

  • Publicly praise current books I’m reading that I’m enjoying

  • Go out of my way to recommend books and content to people whenever possible to introduce them to the work

And this is just what I do publicly. Behind the scenes, I do my best to help others. I spend a lot of time trying to help in whatever way I can.

The results of reciprocity? I’d say less than 1%. I am extremely grateful to that less than 1% of people, but based on thousands of attempts over the years, anyone would be skeptical of the theory of reciprocity.

The Evolutionary Reason for Resentment

I mentioned this in the intro, but I feel the need to repeat it. I feel like an absolute asshole even writing about this. If I was reading this, I’d be thinking, “Well, you’re an ass if you’re only doing things expecting something in return,” or “Maybe your content sucks and that’s why the gestures aren’t reciprocated.” Trust me, along with questioning the entire idea of reciprocity, these thoughts swirl in my head all day. My brain calls me a self-seeking douchebag who probably just makes garbage content people don’t want to share.

After sitting with this for weeks, and it entering my mind sporadically for years, I think there are good reasons for being honest and writing about this publicly. I debated on just journaling about this, but I decided to write about it publicly because I guarantee I’m not the only one who feels this way.

So, is every person who feels like this just a self-centered jerk who makes garbage content? I don’t think so. Not only do I think there’s an evolutionary reason for the resentments, but I also have a theory about reciprocity that I don’t think anyone has recognized. By writing about this publicly, it will hopefully it helps some others while also allowing me to work through these thoughts.

I’m far less resentful than I used to be about the lack of reciprocity than I used to be, but I think it’s unrealistic for any of us to fully get rid of this type of resentment. We may be able to reduce it by 90%, but 10% of the time we’ll still be pissed. Based on what we know about how we evolved for cooperation, I don’t think we’ll ever get to 100%. If we can accept this, maybe we can cut ourselves some slack because we evolved this way.

Gossip and Reputation

Why do we gossip? Because our reputation matters. In his book Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe, Hugo Mercier explains this theory, and it makes a lot of sense. We gossip because it feels good, and we evolved for it to feel good because it’s important. Back in the days when we lived in small tribes, we needed to know who the cooperators were. How did we know who the good cooperators were? Gossip.

But what does this have to do with resentment? I believe this has to do with the free-rider problem that we’ll discuss next. I think it’s possible that we get a pang of resentment because it’s our mind sending us a signal that someone who doesn’t reciprocate is a bad cooperator.

Fortunately, we have a prefrontal cortex, so some of us can activate system 2 thinking and not put these people on blast publicly, but we may name names in private. Let’s say a friend came up to me and asked me if they should work with someone, I’d want to give them my honest opinion. I might say, “They’re a good person, but don’t expect them to reciprocate.” By doing this, my friend will hopefully reciprocate by letting me know if someone might be a bad cooperator in the future.

The Free-Rider Problem

I think the free-rider problem is the primary reason we can’t completely alleviate these types of resentments. I’m always looking for books that are dedicated to the free-rider problem because I personally believe it’s the source of a lot of resentments on a daily basis. Unfortunately, from what I’ve found, books only touch on it for a few paragraphs or maybe a chapter if I’m lucky. So, if you’re an author, there’s a gap in the market for you to fill.

The free-rider problem is exactly what it sounds like. We evolved to cooperate, and groups survive by everyone doing their fair share. If your ancestor goes out and hunts, someone else goes out and gathers. Maybe one person cleans the meat and someone else cooks the meat. But then, there’s that jerk who just sits around and waits for dinner after doing nothing all day, and this jerk is also known as the “free rider”.

Free riders are terrible for cooperative groups, and this is why we evolved to get resentful of free riders. In order for groups and societies to thrive, we created social norms and punishments to reduce the free-rider problem. So, this is another reason we can’t fully avoid resentment because we evolved to feel a certain type of way towards those who don’t reciprocate or do their “fair share”.

We’ll never be able to fully get rid of the free riders; they just adapt. Maybe the free rider in your life makes excuses like their back hurts so they can’t help you move. Maybe they can’t reciprocate because they’re busy taking care of their sick mother. No matter what the reason is, they try to free ride in a way that’s not so obvious in order to avoid punishment while also getting the benefits from your work.

But I think one overlooked aspect of the free-rider problem and reciprocity might be status.

Let’s Play the Status Game Again

If you haven’t read The Status Game by Will Storr, you’re either a fool or just live in the United States, and it hasn’t been released yet. If you’re the latter, get it as soon as it comes out. It’s one of my favorite books of 2021, and I’ve been waiting for someone to write this book for years. I even had the pleasure of chatting with Will about the book on my podcast.

Everything is about status, and we’re constantly playing the game.

One issue with status is that it can either be real or perceived, and we need to keep that in mind. Not only that, but status also depends on context. In one context, you may be of low status, but you may be high status in another. If Cialdini is correct about reciprocity, I’d argue that status is a key component missing from the research.

Let’s do a little reciprocity thought experiment.

You work at an office and your status is smack dab in the middle. You’re not the highest on the totem pole, but you’re also not the lowest. In the morning, an unpaid intern asks you for a favor that will take up an hour of your time. Do you do it? In the afternoon, one of the owners of the company asks you for a favor that will take up an hour of your time. Do you do it?

And do eliminate reputation factors, nobody would know about you doing either favor except for the intern or the owner. So, that officemate you have a crush on wouldn’t know how kind you are because you helped out the intern.

If we were somehow able to conduct a social experiment with these two scenarios 100 times, what do you think the results would be? I’d personally be willing to wager that on average, most people would help the owner and be far less likely to help the intern (And yes, I know there are a million other contextual factors that could affect the results, but I think you know the point I’m trying to make).

I think reciprocity largely depends on relative status. We all want to believe we’re these super kind individuals, but whether we admit it or not, we’re more likely to help someone of higher status or if we think that person can reciprocate with as much or more value.

If you ask any economist, opportunity costs are real. Taking time to help you takes time from me doing something else. We do a quick assessment to see if the potential rewards outweigh the opportunity costs and decide from there.

And hey, I get it. I’m calling myself out too. As I’m writing this, I just got an email from a publicist for a lesser-known author about a book review and interview. After I finish writing this, I’ll do some quick research to see if it’s worth the opportunity costs. And since I recognize this, I don’t even get mad when huge authors decline an invitation to come on the podcast.

So, why is there resentment even when we’re completely aware of this? The relativity of opportunity costs combined with the free-rider problem and some other factors.

Using that email I just received, reading a book takes hours. And if you didn’t know, I listen to books at 2x speed, which greatly reduces the amount of time it takes me, but it’s still an average of about four or five hours. On top of that, there’s the time it takes to write the review, do all the back-and-forth to schedule an interview, doing the interview, editing it, scheduling it, promoting it, etc.

I’ve done over 80 episodes and have had plenty of lesser-known authors on the podcast, but to balance the opportunity costs, it needs to be a book that seems really interesting. If not, I may pass.

With everything I listed, that could be 8-10 hours. I think that’s understandable. The resentment comes in when the opportunity costs are minor. How long does it take to share someone else’s content as an act of reciprocity? Literal seconds. While it may be an unrealistic expectation to expect a busy person with high opportunity costs to reciprocate hours, it’s hard to avoid the resentment when the act takes seconds.

Another great example is that I’m going to share this piece on social media and directly to some people in private after I hit publish. My expectation is also lowered because reading this piece takes more time. And when I send free copies of my books to people, I honestly don’t expect any of them to take the time to read them.

If you look closely, people with status will share and engage with content if it can A) possibly earn reciprocation from someone of equal or higher status or B) signal something positive to others like their own status, beliefs, or tribe affiliation.

Be Grateful, You Idiot

During my addiction, life fucking sucked. I can’t even explain how awful my rock bottom was. I was living in a filthy apartment, my truck was impounded, no friends or family would talk to me, and worst of all, I wasn’t allowed to see my son. When I got sober, I had a small chance of living due to congestive heart failure. Whoever tells you that getting sober solves all your problems is a damn liar. Life was extremely hard my first couple years sober. I was flat broke and only saw my son once that first year. When I finally got a job in year two, I was making about $20,000 a year and had to take a 1.5-hour bus ride at 5:30 AM to get there on time and take that same 1.5-hour ride home.

Through a lot of hard work and personal development, I stayed sober and finally got my license back and a hoopty car off craigslist. When I got that car, I remember being stuck in traffic one day, and everyone was driving like assholes, and I was pissed. Then, a voice popped in my head that said, “Be grateful, you idiot.”

Look how far I came. Aside from having to wait at bus stops in 110-degree Vegas heat the year prior and now having a car with air conditioning, I also had my son back in my life and was still sober.

The point is that the way I keep my sanity through these resentments is with gratitude. In the grand scheme of things, my resentment towards the entire concept of reciprocity is a Cadillac problem.

The other day, I did a podcast episode with Tom Nichols about his book Our Own Worst Enemy. In that episode, I had him give me some tough love, and it was fantastic. Tough love helps me snap back to reality. But what made me happier was how many listeners said how much they enjoyed that episode because Tom and I had a great chat about gratitude to end the episode.

And that’s a great transition to me expressing gratitude to counter-act my bitching. Do you know how grateful I am that Tom came on my podcast? This dude’s opportunity costs are high as hell, but he took an hour out of his day to come on my podcast. He’s a bestselling author, writes for The Atlantic, and is a pundit on mainstream news regularly.

But it’s not just Tom either or all the other big authors I’ve had on the podcast. I’m grateful for all of the authors and guests I’ve had on my podcast. I’m also grateful for everyone who not only listens to the podcast but everyone who takes time out of their day to consume any of my content.

Sometimes the negativity bias is overwhelming, and we can see the negative far more than the positive. This is why gratitude lists are awesome as hell.

Although I lost my job and have the stress of trying to do this on my own, things could be so much worse. Since I spent time earlier this year reading dozens of books about being better with my money, I have some savings as well as investments that I can fall back on. And if worst comes to worst and all of this crashes and burns, I have plenty of skills to find work, even if it sucks. I’m also grateful that I have an amazing girlfriend, friends, and family members who are there if I need them.

Nine years ago, I was a drug addict and alcoholic on my deathbed, so even though resentments pop up, their minor in comparison to what I was going through back then.

Lastly, I follow that wonderful philosophy of trying to be the person you want to see in the world. Regardless of how I may be evolutionarily designed to feel about reciprocity, I’m going to keep doing it. I’m going to keep trying to help other writers and content creators as much as possible and continue to manage my expectations.

So, if you’re someone who is trying to support yourself as an entrepreneur or content creator, I hope this helped. If you’re ever feeling resentful for a lack of reciprocity, you’re not alone. Maybe some of the evolutionary theories I have for why we feel resentful helped. And if nothing else, as I predicted in the intro, writing this was therapeutic, and I feel fantastic.

If, by chance, anyone of higher status is reading this piece, know that we’re also wired for altruism to feel good. You can make someone’s day with a gesture that’s minimal in opportunity costs, and you’ll feel pretty good as well.

And try to reciprocate. If not, society may crumble.

P.S. - You have my total permission to call me out any time if you see me not reciprocating.


I’ve been working on organizing all the books I’ve read, and I have multiple lists of books on becoming a better thinker. There are lists for educationsocial issuescritical thinkingself-deception, and biases. For the rest of the categories, click here.

I’m always open for a conversation and to be shown what I might be missing or where I may be wrong, so feel free to email me at TheRewiredSoul@gmail.com

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