The Curious Case of "I Owe You One"

Since I first heard the phrase “emotional bank account”, I’ve been intensely curious about the human psychology of “I owe you one.” What makes us say, “I’m in your debt?” What makes us FORGET how much we owe people when it’s convenient? And how closely do we actually keep track of favors?
The Goodnight Kiss
If you’re trying to get her to kiss you goodnight, how much do you have to spend?
Unless we’ve gone back in time to 1974, that seems like a ridiculous question, doesn’t it? She doesn’t owe you a thing. We no longer believe that an expensive dinner, a dozen roses and a shoe-shine buys us intimacy.
How much does a friend cost?
When you were a kid, did you buy your friends candy to keep them around? Maybe once or twice–and then you figured it out. Right? They didn’t like you; they just liked candy. And when the candy ran out, they were gone. There was no tabulation of best-friend time owed, no calculation of wedgies deferred, no quota of sleepover invitations met. They were just gone. And you learned a hard lesson: that YOU were the only one keeping score. I’ve learned that one myself a few dozen times.
As an adult, you’re less likely to buy things for others. But you ARE more likely to spend your time on others: doing them special favors, pitching in to move their piano, picking them up from the airport. When you do these things, do you expect reciprocation? You know you shouldn’t. You tell yourself that you’re ONLY doing it to help. But really…you want them to like you. Right? You want them to feel like “I owe that guy.”
You know what comes next.
It’s your turn to need a lift. You think, “Scott owes me a ride. I’ll call him.” And then–Scott is busy on Saturday. Or he needs gas money. Or he doesn’t respond to your text.
You’re let down. But it’s not really Scott’s fault; it’s your expectation of his behavior that’s causing your depression.
In the gym, we do a LOT of “little extras” for our members. We throw parties. We give them free one-on-one attention outside class. We miss our kid’s piano recital to keep the gym open for an extra hour. And we remember ALL of it, don’t we? We have a mental ledger of all the little favors done; all the extra help; all the words of encouragement.
And that’s why, when a client quits, we feel like a loser: we’re keeping score. They’re not.
Why “Win-WIn” is really a losing proposition
In several blog posts and podcast episodes over the last few months, I referred to Bob Burg’s book “The Go-Giver”. Burg believes aiming for a “win-win” agreement always results in one party losing, because it means they’re keeping score. He emphasizes helping the OTHER person win regardless of the net outcome for yourself.
Law #3 from The Go-Giver says, “Your influence is determined by how abundantly you place other people’s interests first.”
In other words, your influence isn’t determined by how much you BOTH benefit, or how equally; but only by how the other person benefits.
In “Help First”, I provide dozens of examples of this mentality. One example is in the “Cobranding” chapter, in which I recommend approaching business owners and asking, “How can I help your business?”
The most common followup question I get is, “…and then what do I sell them? What service or pricing do I need to have ready?”
The answer: none. When you offer to help someone, it’s not because you’re looking for reciprocation (that will come later, don’t worry.) It’s because you want to HELP them. You’re not looking for a win-win; you’re trying to help THEM win. Period.
Moving Whose Piano?
When you help someone, do it without expectation of something in return. But let’s say you DO want something from them: does helping them make them feel as if they “owe” you?
Will buying her a diamond make her feel like she HAS to say “yes”?
How about a really big fake diamond?
I’m not the only one interested in the question. As Jack Schafer, Ph.D. and Marvin Karlins write in “The Like Switch”, our ideas about favors owed is actually backward.
Karlins is a behaviorist for the FBI. His job was to convince people to confess to horrible crimes, or turns and spy on their own country. He was one of the best. And in “The Like Switch”, he goes into fine detail on how to create the “I owe you one” feeling. Dr. Schafer backs up Karlins’ practices with research. And they say the same thing: if you want people to help you succeed, let them do YOU a favor.
When someone helps you, they become invested in the success of the mission. They WANT to be a part of your success.
“He’s in the NBA now, but I used to drive him to basketball practice when he was a kid.” – proud neighbor
“He’s in the NBA now, so I guess I’ll ask him for the gas money he owes me for all those rides to basketball practice” – delusional neighbor
“I don’t care if he’s in the NBA. He owes me $30 for gas!” – no one
When we go the extra mile for a client, the benefit we receive is from the service itself–NOT because we’ve racked up another notch on an imaginary scoresheet that only we can see.
The Big Eraser
You’ve probably helped many people a little. You’ve probably also helped one or two people a LOT. You supported them when they were down; you answered their texts at midnight; you picked up their furniture and moved it across town. You went to their competitions and hosted their kid’s birthday party. You didn’t give them a hard time about their muddy shoes on your bathroom floor…
…and then they quit your gym anyway.
“I did so much for her, and then she switched gyms to save ten bucks! Is THAT what my friendship is worth?”
The problem with keeping score is that it’s done in the logical area of your brain. And as I’ve written a hundred times, we’re not really logical beings. We’re emotional beings with weak logical filters. We can talk ourselves into anything. We can justify any behavior. And we can conveniently minimize–or even forget–our debts to others.
When we do something for a client (like free 1:1 training after class) and can’t do it for everyone, who really benefits? Are we more likely to be buying a client’s gratitude…or just screwing everyone else who doesn’t get the extra attention for the same price?
Help people to help them. Stop keeping score. They’re not.


One more thing!

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