I'm having my students read The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt--a wonderfully interesting, insightful book (even if very wrong in spots!). The metaphor that runs through the book is that we are not just the rider on top of an elephant, but the combination of rider and elephant. The graphic I used in class this week--
Haidt's advice to the person aiming for a better life might be summed up: Know thy elephant. In short, beware of the unconscious (or semi-conscious), automatic, gut level reactions that determine how your life is going, most of the time. Don't fall for the illusion that the conscious, reasoning, deliberate part of yourself is your whole self, and your real self.
Some of your elephant is just like everyone else's elephant--like the part that instinctively goes through life trading favors for favors. Most of the time, it's all well and good to be that way. I take care of your cat, when you're out of town, you take care of my cat. Excellent. The trouble is that the instinct to reciprocate can be used by people who want to take advantage of us. Beware little gifts in those direct mail appeals, and mints that come with the restaurant bill. Beware of much more serious situations in which favors come with strings attached...
Anyhow... I got to thinking about interactions that don't seem to fit the "tit for tat" mold. There's also the response to favors that says "pay it forward" instead of "pay me." A student had a nice story like this--he had only a $100 bill in an airport and the waitress wouldn't take it for a cup of coffee. The guy next to him paid the bill and just said "pay it forward." He was satisfied to think the favor would be repayed to someone else.
What about traffic etiquette? You're in a line of traffic and someone needs to get in--they're in a lane that's closing, or coming out of a parking lot. What do you get in return for being the one to let people in? Two answers came from my class--it's pleasant to get a "thank you" wave. Second answer: it just feels good to let people in. So you do something for another driver, and essentially you give yourself the reward--you pat yourself on the back. You are essentially playing "tit for tat" with yourself, with the other driver external to the transaction. (Hmm....)
I don't think Haidt is claiming that all of our kindness to strangers falls into the category of "tit for tat," but it's interesting to consider, case by case, how much of it does.