In the 1800s, the Dutch formulated a law against taking gifts from foreign governments. Not even a plate of fruit, they said.
Why? Because they feared — and rightly so — one of the most dangerous threats to a government system: corruption.
The creators of the American Constitution eventually borrowed this idea from their European compatriots, putting together a line in the Articles of Confederation that forbade leaders from receiving:
“… any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any King, Prince or foreign State.”
In 1787, this line became Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the American Constitution, where it has remained, untouched, ever since.
Now, 230 years later, the Emoluments Clause is having its day in the sun as 196 Democratic members of Congress sue President Trump for “flagrantly violating the Constitution.” According to D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, the President has repeatedly accepted valuable gifts from foreign leaders, putting in jeopardy the integrity of the American government.
How could a lowly fruit plate — or, in Ben Franklin’s case, a snuffbox full of diamonds — pose a threat to one of the most powerful countries in the world? The answer can be explained with one of persuasion science’s most accepted principles:
The rule of reciprocity.
Humans are built to cooperate with each other in order to survive. Our brains are hardwired to help us build relationships in order to gather resources and create networks (some of us more than others). Even if we don’t particularly like someone, we tend to abide by social forces pressuring us to at least be pleasant and professional in their presence.
These forces are what guide our desire to do favors for each other in business contexts. Favors (or gifts) are social currency. Why? Because when someone gives us something, we tend to feel as though we need to reciprocate.
Two other human traits — our desires for acceptance and consistency — pressure us to abide by that rule of reciprocity. We want to be viewed as appropriate and pleasant, and refusing a gift would be a hazard to our reputation. We want to stay consistent with social norms, lest we become known as a *moocher.*
The result of the rule of reciprocity is that we feel pressured to return gifts or favors in kind even if we don’t like the giver and even if we didn’t want the gift in the first place. We are uncomfortable with the inconsistent feeling of owing someone something, thus — in order to fulfill our social duty — when the giver requests something from us, we are far more likely to comply.
Herein lies the core value of the Emoluments Clause: refusing to take gifts from foreign entities keeps our leaders safe from the draws of reciprocity. The pressure — even for one, individual powerful man — to have a sense of obligation to a foreign government could have major consequences.
The “web of indebtedness” that comes with the rule of reciprocity lives largely in the subconscious parts of the mind, lurking and awaiting the opportunity to help us redeem ourselves by complying with a giver’s request. It’s a social control that is easily manipulated, once you know how it works. And politicians do know how it works.
Logrolling, or the exchange of favors between elected officials, is a fairly common practice that can — dangerously — result in shockingly out-of-character votes by important folks (see: Lyndon Johnson). The sense of obligation changes behavior even at the highest reaches of government; once they’ve accepted a gift or favor, no longer are our representatives beholden to us, their constituent. They’re guided by the invisible hand of reciprocity.
As a speaker coach, I spend a fair amount of time coaching clients on these principles of persuasion, and I can assure you, reader — anecdotally and empirically — that they work. They work so well that examples pervade global political history (German interrogators in WWI! Communist army commanders and American POWs! Mass suicide at Jonestown!).
The president is not exempt from the person draws of reciprocity and persuasion, but — unlike the average American — his obligations have incredibly high stakes. The Founding Fathers may not have known the mechanisms behind social influence or known how fantastically easy it would be in 2017 to send glamorous gifts and communicate favors, but they did know about the importance of protecting the judgment of one of the most powerful decision-makers in the world.
No fruit plates.
Author Micah Larsen is a communication specialist, speaker coach, and the owner of Apis. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.