We’re often told that if you want something from another person, it helps if you grease the wheels by giving him or her something first—a classic tit‐for‐tat exchange. The effectiveness of this strategy has been repeatedly confirmed by the clever experiments of academic researchers. But you don’t have to consult a psychology journal to see this idea in action. It’s the reason why food and beverage makers offer free samples at Whole Foods and drug companies shower doctors with free samples, branded pens, and coffee mugs. It’s why Netflix and Spotify give you a free trial before they ask for money, and it’s often why wealthy businesspeople donate to political campaigns (and why politicians do favors for potential donors).
In his classic book on the science of persuasion, Influence, psychologist Robert Cialdini identifies this rule—which he dubs “the rule of reciprocation”—as “one of the most potent of the weapons of influence”available to us. For instance, Cialdini cites one study in which restaurant servers who gave diners a free mint at the end of their meal saw their tips increase by 3 percent. Those who gave two mints—and mentioned to the diners that they were only supposed to give one—experienced a 14 percent tip increase.The basic lesson in this study is clear: if you want something, you have to give something.
However, my approach to persuasion isn’t about collecting“weapons of influence.” It’s about developing the character traits that compel people to take your side, not because of some tactical maneuver you’ve successfully executed but because of who you actually are. With this in mind, we should aim to modify the lesson from Cialdini’s rule of reciprocity: If you want to be persuasive, don’t look for chances to engage in tit‐for‐tat exchanges. Be the kind of person who naturally thinks about giving things away. Attempt to leave every person you encounter with something valuable that they didn’t have before they interacted with you—a useful piece of information, some helpful advice, a gift that advances them, anything that might be valuable for them. In a word, be generous.
Unlike someone who has weaponized the rule of reciprocity in order to get a quick yes, a generous person gives habitually, without thinking, and without expecting anything in return. They see the world in terms of other people’s needs, and they naturally identify ways of helping. The sociologist Christian Smith defines generosity as “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” It’s the opposite of selfishness and greed—even though this may end up benefiting you in the long run. In fact, it’s a great irony that when you give without regard for self‐interest, you end up getting a lot in return.
It’s also an idea that is central to many ancient philosophies and religions. A Chinese proverb tells us, “One who constantly gives will constantly have wealth and honor.” TheNew Testament teaches, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And theBuddha believed, “Giving brings happiness at every stage of its expression.” The latest scientific research has taken a while to catch up with this ancient wisdom, but it tends to agree. Generosity has been linked to greater levels of personal happiness, lower stress. But it also has significant benefits in the domain of persuasion levels, better health, and longer life expectancy.