A Story of Heaven and Hell                                       

Heaven and hell are set up the same way. In each place people sit at large rectangular banquet tables. The tables are beautifully set and have every imaginable delicacy. All the diners in both settings have large wooden paddles strapped to their hands which can’t be removed. In hell all the diners are Takers who try to feed themselves, food flies in all directions and fight break out constantly. In heaven all the diners are Givers and feed those across from them at the table.

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini makes reference to what he considers to be one of the most important, yet often unrecognized factors, inherent in the art of persuasion. Cialdini refers to as the “rule of reciprocation”, the universal tendency to repay when given a gift whether it has come in the form of a material object or an act of generosity.

Lest we forget, there is a profound difference between “control” which has to do with having domination or authority over another;  “influence” which has to do with having the power to sway or affect change in another person's perspective or behavior. Efforts to control frequently result in outcomes that differ from or may even be the opposite of our intended desires, since most of us have a natural tendency to resist overt efforts from others to control our behavior or beliefs.

Sharing what we have makes us human.

The tendency to reciprocate has survived throughout human history because it has survival value for the human species. The noted archaeologist Richard Leakey describes the essence of what makes us human is this system of reciprocity. “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.” And cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox describe our web of indebtedness as the valuable means that allows for the division of labor exchange of goods and services, and the creation of clusters of inter-dependencies that bind us together in highly efficient causal units.

Share, take turns, give back.

In nearly all cultures, the process of socialization teaches us to share, take turns and give back to all who give to us. We are likely to be shamed or ostracized if we don’t integrate the rule of reciprocity into our behavior. Most of us learn over time to go to great lengths not to be considered a freeloader or a parasite. Learning to trust our judgment when it comes to distinguishing acts of true generosity from actions designed to activate obligatory giving is a process that inevitably involves instances of being overly naive or overly mistrusting at various times.

One way to cultivate a keener sense of others’ motivation is to become more mindful of our own, often unconscious motivations when we feel the impulse to give to another. By taking a moment to contemplate questions like:

  • Do I have any expectation of reciprocation from this person in response to my gift?
  • Will I be disappointed, resentful, hurt, or feel badly if they do not reciprocate?
  • Am I truly letting go of this gift or do I feel like I have a right to influence or control what this person does with it? (This is a particularly good question to ask ourselves when we are giving the “gift” of advice!)
  • Is this a gift that is given out of a sense of obligation to another as a result of a gift that that I have received from them.
  • Is this gift an expression of a genuine desire to provide something of value?
  • Am I giving to diminish or eliminate a sense of guilt that I have for something that I have or haven’t done?
  • Is there fear of an undesirable consequence if I do not give something to this person and if so, what is it?

Asking ourselves these questions doesn’t in any way require us to withhold our gifts, regardless of how we answer them. The purpose of this self-inquiry is to bring awareness of our intentions and to become more acutely attuned to others’ motivations.

The power of reciprocity.

As we begin to trust ourselves to make these fine distinctions we become more able to give freely and more open to receive. In the process, we notice those acts of kindness and true generosity of spirit that set in motion cooperation of the highest order. In so doing, the tendency to control is greatly diminished and is replaced by a growing sense of trust.

When we begin to understand the power that is inherent in the rule of reciprocity, the motivation to practice generosity with our time and attention dramatically expands. This dance of ongoing, reciprocal giving and receiving is a characteristic all highly successful relationships. And when two people are simultaneously operating from this understanding, there’s no telling what they can create together. The sky’s the limit!


Linda Bloom L.C.S.W. has served as psychotherapist and seminar leader practicing relationship counseling almost forty years. Check out her OMTimes Bio.

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Comment by Linda Bloom on March 14, 2018 at 2:56pm

Abstract: The “rule of reciprocation” is the universal tendency to repay when given a gift, whether it has come in the form of a material object or an act of generosity. There is a profound difference between control and influence, and we can learn to question ourselves to ascertain whether the motivation for giving is pure. We can move out of the hell realms of power and control games dominated by fear to enter heavenly realms that are infused with love.

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