In my last blog post, I wrote about one of the common street scams in Paris, the petition scam that relies on foot-in-the-door to work. Another common street scam is the friendship bracelet.
A person approaches the mark, wraps string around the mark’s finger, makes a string bracelet, ties it around the mark’s wrist, and then demands money in exchange for the bracelet that the mark cannot remove without a pocket knife.
Here it is in action. Notice how the mark tries to ignore the scammer and how the scammer ignores the mark’s protests and gets the string around his finger and starts twisting the string. It’s tight enough that the mark can’t get it off. At the end, another scammer demands the fee while the original scammer readies his string for the next mark – and scratches himself.
Norm of reciprocity
What drives the scam is the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something for us, we feel compelled to do something in return – even when what we received is not something we wanted.
A new research article, reported on by the British Psychological Society Research Digest, suggests that some people experience more “reciprocity anxiety” than other people do. “The scale taps two related components of reciprocity anxiety: avoidance, both of receiving favours/help/compliments and of feeling the need to reciprocate these things (factor 1) and distress, not only about not being able to reciprocate, but also at what others will think if you don’t (factor 2).” Those who scored higher on the “reciprocity anxiety” scale were more likely to say that if they were customers in a restaurant and the server gave them a “free money-off coupon,” they would be more likely to purchase the expensive dessert the server later recommended.
The blog post author, Christian Jarrett, pointed out – and rightly so – that he’d have more confidence in the value of the scale if the research measured actual behavior rather than hypothetical behavior.
Imagine if we could measure reciprocity anxiety in tourists before turning them loose on Paris’ Montmarte or Rome’s Spanish Steps. Would those tourists who scored high on the avoidance subscale work harder to avoid the friendship bracelet scammers than those who scored low? Of the tourists who get fished in, would those who scored higher on the distress subscale give more money than those who scored low? If you can’t get a research grant that would take you to Paris or Rome, you could do it on your own campus – returning the money to the marks during your debriefing, of course! Volunteer participants would take a battery of self-report measures included among those is the reciprocity anxiety scale, and then the participants are turned loose. As the participants leave the building, your confederate scammers pounce on them with string. Although, there may be a floor effect on the dependent variable. How much cash do students carry?
After covering the norm of reciprocity, discuss this new study on reciprocity anxiety. Ask students to consider what behaviors the reciprocity anxiety subscales might predict, and then brainstorm some ways those predictions could be tested.