Money for nothing

Campaign donations and the reciprocity principle

Face facts: Massachusetts doesn’t measure up for really mind boggling corruption. Illinois had its governor trying to auction off the senate seat of then-president-elect Obama. New Jersey had mayors, selectmen and rabbis charged in a scheme involving a black market in human body organs. Our Probation Department scandal is embarrassingly humdrum in comparison.

But we can stand tall in honor of Kinsley’s Law, named for Michael Kinsley, who said that the scandal in politics is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal.

I was reminded of this recently by a Globe story revealing that freshly-minted state Treasurer Steve Grossman, as a candidate, had legally solicited contributions for the state Democratic Party from lawyers and executives who have business with the treasury. That is very helpful because individuals can give up to $5,000 to a state political party, but only $500 to individual candidates.

Coincidentally the party turned around and spent over $728,000, most of it on radio and television, to help elect Grossman. Party leaders and the treasurer both deny any coordination between Grossman’s fundraising and the party’s expenditures. This is why politicians are so optimistic: it seems every time they rush downstairs on a birthday to find a pile of horse dung in the living room, they just know there is a pony in there somewhere.

Treasurer Grossman invoked Kinsley’s law, remarking that “nobody should have any illusion that they would get special treatment from Steve Grossman for contributions to my campaign or the Democratic Party.” And there’s no suggestion of a Barry Locke type situation here. Locke was the Ed King administration transportation secretary convicted for taking envelopes stuffed with cash in return for official acts. Locke had no talent for ambiguity.

So other than the warm spirit of engaged citizenship what might the liquor interests and Lottery contractors who contributed expect for participating in our democracy?

Dismissing any suggestion of a quid pro quo, the contributors are still in a pretty good place. That is because of what marketing and psychology professor Robert Cialdini describes as the reciprocity principle in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Basically, we humans are wired to return the favor when someone does something for us. Reciprocity has been to our evolutionary benefit because it promotes sharing and mutual obligations. But reciprocity can be used as a technique to win another’s compliance because of its power in gaining assent to requests that, in the absence of a feeling of indebtedness, would almost certainly be refused.

Cialdini shows how reciprocity works even for people we don’t care for – like people buttonholing passersby for donations. He watched the Hare Krishnas as they presented airport visitors with the simple gift of a flower. Almost inevitably the target tried to give it back but the Krishna would refuse. The traveler continued to protest without success. The Krishna was unmoved by the donee’s protests – “it’s our gift to you, though a small contribution would be welcome.” Often in exasperated resignation, the traveler dug into a pocket and produced a dollar or two, the better to be rid of the stubborn benefactor. Then the unlucky traveler would turn the corner and toss the flower in the trash (to be subsequently retrieved and recycled by the Krishnas).

Why would we agree to requests when feeling indebted that we would otherwise reject? Two reasons, says Cialdini.  First, the feeling of owing someone is powerful and uncomfortable. Second, people who do not repay a debt are stigmatized as moochers and ingrates.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
So those who wish to influence public policy should be looking for opportunities to help with campaign fundraising. Most times the political figure actively seeks out givers for contributions. That would seem to enhance the obligation, and givers can rest comfortably with the knowledge that the reciprocity principle is always at work. 

The principle has worked in politics in the past, and Cialdini reminds us of one such occasion. Charles Keating, later convicted of fraud in the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, was asked if he really thought there was any connection between his contributions to US senators and their intervention on his behalf with regulatory authorities. His response: “I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so.”

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.