Reciprocity has been well studied and is quite intuitive. If I do a bunch of nice things for you and you never do nice things for me, I’ll probably stop doing nice things for you. You are too deep in debt and I don’t trust that you will pay it back. The relationship feels imbalanced. It seems to me like I care more about you than you do me. I don’t need for things to be exactly equal, but extreme imbalance is a problem.
People who take and never give tend to be socially punished, which helps to enforce reciprocity values.
However, like all systems with rules, there are rule breakers who can evade detection. More interestingly, there are people who always take and end up viewed as people who always give. That is, they are the ones in massive debt but are able to convince others that the opposite is true. It would be like if a harmful virus were able to convince the immune system that it was part of the immune system and doing most of the work in fighting infections. How can this be?
Well, one clue that someone gives more than they take in a relationship is if they seem like a generous person in general and also seem hurt by the other person. This suggests that the other person isn’t reciprocating the kindness. This is probably a pretty reliable indicator in general. Reliable signals can sometimes be hijacked by skilled actors. Similarly, another generally reliable signal that someone is trustworthy is if they seem very confident.
Now consider someone who always takes. If they confidently and skillfully portray themselves as compassionate, giving, and hurt/slighted in a particular relationship, it can look like they are the one who needs to be paid back. THIS CAN EVEN FOOL THE PERSON WHO HAS ACTUALLY BEEN DOING ALL OF THE GIVING, MAKING THE PERSON WHO HAS BEEN DOING ALL OF THE GIVING FEEL LIKE THE ONE WHO IS DEEPLY IN DEBT.
Sociopaths tend to be extremely confident, probably because they lack most normal emotions that would make someone nervous. They remain confident even in the face of strong contradictory evidence. If you think they are wrong, it’s because there are some basic things about human nature or the situation that you just don’t understand. They will teach you how you were mistaken (people like this do a lot of teaching). This shows how patient they are (they remain calm even when you are so wrong), how caring they are (they will take the time to teach you), and how right they were all along.
Confidence is also a sign of dominance. To continue to challenge them, after they taught you how you were mistaken, would be to question their dominance over you and also might lead to them punishing you (e.g., being colder towards you for a while).
One thing I have noticed is that people like this tend to let you know how generous or good they are, without actually doing the good or generous things. They might directly tell you they are a good person, or tell you about some moral code that they live by (remember, they would do this in a very confident way). Or, they might do it slightly less directly with statements like this: “So many people have said I’m the nicest person they know. That makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think I’m anything special.” Here they are telling you they are amazing while pretending to be humble about it. If you hear things like that often enough, you might start to believe that they must really be special.
If someone shows you that they have been hurt by you, it’s pretty easy to feel like you are in debt to them. No matter how many nice things you have done for them, they will find ways to be hurt – leaving you further in perceived debt. Sure, you did these nice things for this person, but if you *really* knew them, you would have known that this other nice thing is what really matters to them. They are hurt that you didn’t know that. So even though you did some nice things, you are even more in debt. Yet, during this time you might never notice that you are doing all of the giving. Or, if you do notice, you will be taught (with confidence) how it is because of your defects that you do not understand the situation as it actually is.
The above takes skills to pull off successfully. The successful sociopath wants you to know that you are in debt to them, but that won’t work if they come off as whiny or pathetic. So they might pretend like they want to keep their hurt feelings to themselves, but give you enough clues so that you know the truth.
Similarly, letting people know how much of a giving person they are (while not actually giving) takes skill. It seems to me to be a combination of somewhat direct messages (appearing to be self-reflective while letting you know how generous they are) and also their expressed disappointment in how other people don’t live up to their standards.
There are people who have spent their entire lives taking from people in an extremely unbalanced way, but who are perceived by people who know them as generous. I think that about 90+% of it is due to how easily fooled we are by confidence.
I recommend trying to remind yourself to not let the critical thinking part of your brain turn off when someone is very confident. More importantly, try to look at what people actually have done, rather than trusting how they portray themselves to you. This person who you perceive as very generous, can you think of even one actual sacrifice that they have made for other people (that wasn’t for very direct personal gain)?