40. Welcome the free lunch - Ask favors

What is offered for free or at bargain rates often comes with a psychological price tag—complicated feelings of obligation, compromises with quality, the insecurity those compromises bring, on and on. The powerful learn early to protect their most valuable resource: independence and the room to maneuver. — The 48 Laws of Power (2 Areas/3 Notes/3 Sciences/0 Mathematics/AM3D Axioms, postulates/48 Laws of Power/40. Despise the free lunch)

In Greene's world, there are no acts of kindness without agendas—"what is offered for free is inevitably a trick." Generosity, then, is just another weapon in your Machiavellian arsenal. He recommends that power-seekers try out this trick ("strategic generosity") themselves:

By giving the appropriate gift, you put the recipient under obligation. Generosity softens people up—to be deceived.

The main weakness in Greene's argument is that strategic generosity works both ways; it softens both the giver and recipient.1 When one performs a favor for others, they become more likely to perform favors for the other in the future. This is what's known as the "Ben Franklin Effect". In the great statesman's own words:

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged"

Observances of the Law

Observance 1

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin was elected clerk of the General Assembly of Philadelphia. The next year, Franklin put himself up for reelection, only to find unexpected opposition from one of the newer members. Franklin prevailed in the election but was worried about his chances the following year, so he resolved to win over the affections of his new opponent. Rather than grovel and demean himself, Franklin chose another course:

"Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death"

Interpretation 1

Franklin knew the feelings of obligation that accompany unanticipated gifts frequently cause the strategy to backfire. Rather than making the recipient more likely to do something for the giver in the future, the gift fosters resentment. No one likes spontaneous debts.

To get around this, Franklin's technique is to shift the initiative from the gift-giver to the recipient. The first advantage is that the gift-giver cannot have thought of the favor as part of an elaborate ploy to win control over you. The second advantage is that the recipient alleviates some of the feeling of obligation.

The typical explanation for this phenomenon comes from the psychological theory of "Cognitive Dissonance". We usually give gifts to people we like, so giving someone a gift who we do not like confuses us. One way to remedy the dissonance between action and feeling is to change the feeling—for the gift-giver to increase their liking of the recipient.

Accordingly, if an individual performs a favor for a person about whom he initially has neutral or negative feelings, he may come to like that person as a means of justifying his having performed the favor. [1]

Alternatively, the Franklin Effect might play on the theory of Self-Perception: if we have not yet formed an opinion about someone that would inform our behaviors towards them, then our behaviors towards that person end up informing our opinion of them [2].2 This is the fake-it-til-you-make-it of human relationships.

Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. — William James

But even when the giver and receiver are already well-acquainted, a regular exchange of favors is healthy and worth pursuing. Just a trickle of obligation flowing both directions is a great way to keep the relationship alive.

Observance 2

When Odysseus arrived at Phaeacia, shipwrecked, seaweed-crusted, torn, and battered, his only recourse was to trust in the generosity of the island's inhabitants. He approached the princess of the island who had taken her bevy of maids to do some washing at the seashore. Rather understandably, the maids' first reaction was to flee—who knows what this ragged guy (whose only covering was an olive branch) might want? But the princess, Nausicaa, stayed—she was too well-versed in the rules of xenia (=hospitality) to refuse a stranger in need.

“Strangers and beggars come from Zeus: a small gift, then, is friendly.”

She directed her maids to wash and dress Odysseus, who, in the manner of the Hollywood makeover, became the perfect picture of regal majesty. She then advised him how best to approach her parents for support, and, heading that advice, Odysseus was soon off again.

Unfortunately, Odysseus had a knack for getting shipwrecked (read: Poseidon liked to shipwreck Odysseus). The Phaecian ship with all its treasures (a gift from the Phaecians) went under just as the crew were coming up to Ithaca, Odysseus's home. He washed up on shore again the ragged beggar.

This time Odysseus's benefactor was his old swineherd, Eumaeus, who no longer recognized the king after the 20 year separation. Despite taking his king for a pauper, Eumaeus liberally extended his shelter, food, and company to the forlorn traveler. Then, later, when he became aware of Odysseus's identity, Eumaeus risked his life to help Odysseus reclaim his throne.

Interpretation 2

The small favor Odysseus asked of Nausicaa—an article or two of clothing—spiraled out of control. He soon gained his ticket home with a fair share of treasure to boot. On the giving end, Nausicaa's small act of generosity grew into unrequited love. It's the Franklin effect in extreme: the favor-asking stranger becomes a love-receiving intimate.

Asking Eumaeus for some food and shelter, meanwhile, led directly to Odysseus reestablishing his throne. He rekindles a dormant relationship, which was indisipensable when, at a later date, he needed to slaughter the suitors who had been infringing upon his home.

Odysseus knew when to put his trust in others. At his lowest moments, he had nothing else left over, so he had to resort to Greene's dreaded free lunch. But Odysseus never let these gifts demean him, and, by taking the initiative, he managed always to maintain a modicum of control.

Keys to Power

To understand the true purpose of unmitigated acts of generosity, we turn to an illustrative example from 1 Projects/Rationalia/LW/Concepts/Game Theory: the Prisoner's Dilemma3. For the unfamiliar, here's the situation: You and and an accomplice have been caught by the police for some heinous crime, and you've been taken to separate cells for interrogation. If both you and your accomplice hold quiet, then you can get away with a minor charge and only one year of jail time (the cops don't have enough evidence to convict for the full charge). If both of you testify against each other, then it's a two-year sentence. But if you testify and your accomplice does not, then you walk free, while your accomplice is locked away for three years. Vice-versa, if you're quiet and your accomplice blabs, it's three years for you.

What do you do? Cooperate with the accomplice by staying quiet or defect by blabbing to the police?

All other things being equal, rationally, there's only one right answer: defection. That's because if your accomplice cooperates, it's better for you to defect (no time vs one year), and if your accomplice defects, it's better for you to defect (two years vs three years). So even though it leads to the worst result on average, you expect two rational beings to always defect.

But all other things are rarely equal: the real-world has more than enough mechanisms that make defection unlikely. For one, the mafia boss that both of you report to will be none to happy to hear you've snitched—do you take the year or give your life? Forcing cooperation is one of the main functions (yes, benefits) of central authorities like governments. Less formally, your reputation among the criminal element is sure to take a hit if you're identified as a snitch. Even gossip has a function.

Perhaps most importantly, your interactions with your accomplice don't end with the jail sentence. After he gets out of his three-year sentence, you'll have some explaining to do. We begin to see why the "iterated" Prisoner's Dilemma—one which is repeated between the same parties many times—has a qualitatively different outcome to the one-off version.

In 1980, Robert Axelrod organized the first of his famous4 Prisoner's Dilemma tournaments. He invited research teams from the world over to compete against one another in an iterated Prisoner's dilemma. The result was that the most successful strategy was perhaps the simplest: "Tit for tat." A player taking this strategy starts cooperatively, then copies their opponent's previous action. This means they benefit optimally from cooperative players while limiting losses against defectors.


Tit for tat, however, has one major flaw: "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." If you pair two tit-for-tatters against each other, and one of them accidentally defects, then the two will enter a "death spiral." In one turn, player one cooperates, and player two defects. In the next turn, player one defects and player two cooperates. Then, player one cooperates again, player two defects again, and so on.

In order to remedy this vulnerability, there are more lenient versions of Tit for Tat: either leaky Tit-for-Tat which will randomly throw in a cooperation after a defection, or Tit-for-two-Tats, which requires two defections before changing behaviors.

“I have something that I call my Golden Rule. It goes something like this: 'Do unto others twenty-five percent better than you expect them to do unto you.' … The twenty-five percent is for error.” ― Linus Pauling

Here, we begin to see the true meaning of the free lunch. An unrequited favor is simply preemptive cooperation. It starts a tit-for-tat cycle on the mutually beneficial cooperative side. This leaves both players with a higher payoff over the long run.

In this light, the Ancient Greek concept of xenia is but a formalized version of Tit for Tat: it guarantees the starting point for any relationship with a stranger to be cooperation. The Franklin effect, meanwhile, is but a clever trick (albeit positive one) to get the other person to start cooperating with a minimal downside if they refuse.

Real life is not nearly as zero-sum as Greene makes it out to be. Fortunately, the difficult societal challenges are closer to iterated Prisoner's Dilemmas than a one-off game of Chicken. With the right strategy of aggressive cooperation, everyone stands to win.

As long as you are sure that your relationship with the gift-giver is a long one, accept their gifts readily, and be quick to counter with a gift of your own. Also, keep the exchanges ambiguous—you want both parties to feel like they still owe the other party something. As soon as you quantify the kindnesses, and it becomes clear that one person is in favor-bestowing debt, the other player has a reason to start defecting. Otherwise, if you wish to establish a long-term relationship, begin by asking a favor or imparting one yourself. Set the precedent with kindness, and who knows how far the collaboration might go.



  1. I'm not even going to argue the other point about hidden agendas and kindness. It is true sometimes, but as a universal statement, this cynicism is so obviously absurd, it would waste my time to linger on.

  2. At the end of the day, most psychological theories like these are ad-hoc, nigh unverifiable, and bordering on Astrology, but at least it's entertaining and food for thought.

  3. Apologies to those of you are fed up with every popular science account of Game Theory always beginning with the Prisoner's Dilemma.

  4. Among the right crowd.

  5. A different take on this is the "spatialized Prisoner's dilemma". You don't necessarily "compete" against the same players but against a small, self-contained, highly mixing population of players. Then "Tit for tat" emerges as a kind of "pay-it-forward" strategy. You're nice to your neighbors so they will be nice to their neighbors who will be nice to you. Read: your accomplice's buddies will come beat you up if you tattle.