Infinity Dollars

Would you give me a penny if I asked you? If the answer was “yes,” then would you give me all of your money?

Seems like an odd jump, but this is just the heap problem in reverse. If you would say “yes” to giving me a penny, then in theory you’d say “yes” again and I can just keep asking until you’ve given me all of your money.

Of course, this is absurd. But it’s kind of important to identify the mechanism that makes it absurd, because that mechanism teaches us a lot about other, more realistic interactions.

First, in order to say “yes” to giving me a penny, a few things have to be true. The transaction cost has to be so minimal as to be almost non-existent. For most people, that would mean that you had to have a penny already on you, maybe even already in your hand, and the person asking has to be pretty much directly in front of you. Even if you’d say “yes” in that circumstance, it doesn’t mean you’d agree to giving someone a penny via Venmo, or that you’d agree to go to a local bank and make change for one. In fact, if you would theoretically agree to give someone a dollar and they ask for a penny, you’re more likely to just give them the dollar than to find a place to extract a penny from it.

That’s actually a trick that some panhandlers use: ask for a small-but-inconvenient amount, like 3 dollars, for “bus fare” or something. People are more likely to have fives, tens or twenties than exactly three ones, but by asking for less they seem more reasonable while still likely getting a higher amount.

Which brings up the next point: every time you ask someone for something, you expend social capital just for the ask, regardless of whether they agree. The larger the ask, the more social capital you expend. If I ask you for a thousand dollars, I radically diminish my social value in your eyes, even if you don’t give it to me. On the other hand, if I ask you to “spot me a dollar,” that’s barely any capital at all. Asking for a penny seems like such an inconsequential ask that for most people the curiosity alone would outweigh the miniscule social capital loss. (And of course, it depends on how much social capital you have with that person to begin with – strangers on the street have very little beyond the baseline that you give all humans, which of course varies from person to person.)

But as soon as you ask for a second penny, I see the grift. Now the social capital loss is the same as it would be if you ask for whatever number I eventually expect you to build up to. That’s why being willing to give me a penny doesn’t automatically mean you’ll give me all of your money. The subsequent asks change the equation.

This translates to how we interact with others in a lot of circumstances. Some people will (intentionally or not) take advantage of others to great degree, but hide it behind never asking for anything big. They’ll hit you up for $10, but they’ll do it 15 times a month. And when you refuse, they can paint you as the unreasonable one: “come on man, it’s only ten bucks!” This is especially effective if you’ve already agreed to the ask in the past, because they’re penny-ing you. You agreed once, so it’s unreasonable for you to refuse now. And if you don’t realize all of this, that trick can be really convincing.

My little personal filter for this: whenever anyone asks me a favor, I quickly ask myself: “would I do a favor ten times as large for this person?” I’m mentally multiplying the social capital cost of their ask times ten before agreeing. If I would do a favor ten times as large, I’ll do the small one.

Of course, this implies that doing the favor has no value to me – but in most cases, doing favors benefits me tremendously. First off, I’m good at getting value one way or another. Secondly, I know the power of social capital, and so I’m always happy to increase my own.

But don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. Giving to the world is wonderful – but pouring juice down the drain isn’t. Know the difference.

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