Why people doing favors and giving freebies can put us on edge

Getting a basket of free goodies sent to us at work may bring some of us elation. But for some of us, these kinds of freebies put us on edge. If you’re one of the many people who walk down the free sample aisle at the mall with dread, there’s a scientific name for what you’re feeling: “reciprocity anxiety,” a term the authors behind a new Journal of Economic Psychology study defined as “feel[ing] anxious in a situation that requires them to reciprocate or when they anticipate such a situation.”

‘Reciprocity anxiety’ is why freebies make us uncomfortable

The team of researchers developed an 11-item scale you can consult to see if you experience this particular kind of social anxiety. Here are some of them:

  • I’ll never ask for help if I don’t have to, to avoid owing others
  • Usually, I don’t accept favors unless I am sure I can pay back all the favors quickly
  • I hesitate to ask for help because then I don’t need to think about what I might give in return
  • I’m restless and on edge when I owe someone

If you feel reciprocity anxiety, you do not take comfort from what people give you; you worry about what this favor means you now owe. You may be struck by the urge to avoid any kind of social obligation you will need to reciprocate and are distressed at the thought that you may have to pay someone back. Instead of seeing a favor as a freebie, you fixate on perceived unseen strings attached. You may see relationships as more transactional. When a coworker offers to pick up the check, you focus more on the anxiety that you will need to pay for their lunch next time.

In one experiment, participants were asked to imagine getting a free drink at a store. Participants who scored high in reciprocity anxiety said they felt less customer satisfaction at this freebie and would be less willing to return to the store. For some of us, getting freebies perks us up. But if someone rebuffs your favor, do not take it personally; recognize that these socially anxious recipients may be seeing a different message than what you are seeing. You are signaling generosity, but your recipient is seeing dollar signs.