Have you ever thought about how we treat people who are sick? We have an entire economic system (trillions of dollars in the US) set up around treating people who are sick. When we have family members who are ill we often take time off work, help make sure their pillows are comfortable, and make them hot tea or soup. We will put ourselves at risk of catching whatever illness they have, or if it is not contagious, we will sacrifice large parts of our lives to be there in support. I’m not suggesting that caring for the ill is a bad thing, but it is curious that humans would develop a drive to help those who are sick at great personal risk and cost to oneself.
In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that helping those who are sick is actually less about helping the sick person, and more about making sure we will have someone to help us if we are in a similar situation in the future. There is a quid pro quo taking place where we make a sacrifice so that others will sacrifice for us if we get sick.
The authors write, “in part, it’s a simple quid pro quo: I’ll help you this time if you’ll help me when the tables are turned. But providing support is also an advertisment to third parties: See how I help my friends where they’re down? If you’re my friend, I’ll do the same for you. In this way, the conspicuous care shown in our medical behaviors is similar to the conspicuous care shown in charity; by helping people in need, we demonstrate our value as an ally.”
We all want people to see us as nice, generous, caring individuals. To make sure people see us that way, we seize upon opportunities to demonstrate those qualities in the real world, even if there is a cost to us. The authors would argue that it is precisely when there is a cost to us that we are most likely to be charitable or to help those who are ill, at least if there is a sufficient audience. It often feels like we are just doing something nice for another person out of the goodness of our heart, but often there is another layer at play that is more self-interested than we would want others to see. We hide that part of ourselves and make an effort to not see that part of ourselves in who we are, or in the people we care about. That part of ourselves is the elephant in the brain which is dictating a lot of our interactions with the world, even though we won’t acknowledge it.
I am always saddened by how challenging adult friendships can be. Once you begin working 40 hours a week, have to deal with a commute, and have a household to look over, keeping up with friends and getting out to do things with friends becomes nearly impossible. I enjoy being able to own a home, but unfortunately, like many suburban residents I have a lengthy commute to work, get home and park in my garage, and generally don’t see a lot of friends or even neighbors during the week. I try not to be on my phone at work, and when I get home I start cooking and generally don’t message or call anyone.
In this busy work-life world, it can become easy to start seeing friends the way we see our impersonal relationships with ATM machines, paddle boards, and the grocery store. If it is convenient and if I get something in return from our friendship, I’ll reach out and try to schedule something for the weekend. If you can help me and if being friends with you is likely to pay off, then we can say hi to each other and maybe hangout for a BBQ sometime.
Trying to cram friendship into our suburban lifestyle in this way, however, doesn’t work and we won’t be satisfied with our friendships if we approach friendship with this type of utility maximization. Friendship and deep relationships are about more than just convenience or borrowing a leaf blower. Seneca writes, “He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.” Many of our friendships end-up being just cordial relationships when times are easy.
This can leave us without support when we face real challenges and emergencies. It can leave us feeling isolated and depressed and provide us with fewer opportunities to socialize and connect with people in a meaningful way. I truly think this is one of the greatest challenges we face and I see even small things, like starting a club or community group, as a huge step toward changing the relationships we have. We need to see people not as friendship ATMs, but as real individuals who have the same challenges, fears, and capacity for enjoyment and interest in the world as we do. By seeing a little more of ourselves in others we can start to see the importance of having meaningful connections with people and we can start working to better connect with the people around us.
Continuing with the idea of reciprocity Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little Change a Lot, reviews two studies, one by Dennis Regan and another study M.E. Schneider, which deal with finding the best balance between helping others, and receiving positive results from the favors you provide. In regards to favors Wiseman writes the following (emphasis mine):
“Favors have their strongest effect when they occur between people who don’t know each other very well, and when they are small but thoughtful. When people go to a great deal of effort to help someone else, the recipient can often feel an uncomfortable pressure to reciprocate. In a sense by giving too much at the beginning, one person places the other in a difficult position because the law of reciprocity states that the recipient has to give even more in return. Motivation is also important, as recipients can often experience a drop in self-esteem if they think they are bing helped because they are believed not to have the ability to be successful by themselves, or if they attribute the favor to an ulterior motive.”
I am drawn to this quote because it shows that we can not go about greatly influencing the behaviors of others simply by performing favors for them. The science indicates that we can make a lasting impression for someone by performing small acts of kindness, making the other person want to reciprocate positive actions back to us. The research also seems to reveal that people are uncomfortable with large favors, because it puts them in an awkward and unexpected position. Finding a balance where you perform small favors can help you boost your relationships be creating stronger bonds and friendships with people willing to assist you when you need a hand.
Wiseman’s section on reciprocity also shows that people can sense the motives behind favors. A congressional approach to friendship and relationships (a you scratch my back I scratch your back, or in congress you vote for my bill, I’ll vote for your bill) is not a strong way to build friends and influence others. Providing favors because you are expecting others to then do something positive for you is going to leave you without friends as others will see your underlying motive. Ultimately this will leave you with no reciprocated goodness, and no friends.
Another idea that I was drawn to from Wiseman’s thoughts on reciprocity is the idea of empowering others and performing genuine favors. When others sense that you are doing favors for them because you don’t believe they can handle the situation on their own, you damage their self confidence and insult them. I think of a young teenager who does not have the opportunity to make his or her own decisions because their parent is constantly acting for them. The teenager may just want to have the chance to display their own competence, but the actions of their parent are leaving them without an opportunity to apply themselves. By acting in ways that we think are favors for others, but actually limit their participation and self implementation we may doing more harm than good. I believe Wiseman would argue that this contributes to the idea of simple favors having a greater impact than large favors.