“I can’t believe I let him get away with that. What was I thinking? I should have put my foot down.”

Sometimes you reward people and they try harder, but sometimes you reward them and they stop trying. The same is true for punishment — sometimes it motivates, and sometimes it demotivates. Now why is that?

We know the emotions that accompany each response: Reward makes people feel encouraged, optimistic, and confident, so they try harder, but rewards can also lead to complacency, self-satisfaction, and a sense of completion, so they stop trying. Similarly, punishment makes people feel challenged, alerted, and determined, so they make more of an effort, but punishment also results in resentment, paralysis, and discouragement, so they give up.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

If you’re trying to move someone into alignment with you (and who isn’t?), this ambiguity can be a serious problem: One false move and your strategy backfires. People will tell you what the true move is. They’ll say that punishment never works, or that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. All such singular wisdom is absolutely half-true: Punishment never works, except when it does. Honey catches flies but can also get them stuck. Besides, people aren’t flies, and you can catch more flies with poop than with vinegar, too.

Recently, I’ve noticed a pattern underlying all of this ambiguity.

Reward and punishment are signals about the past or the future or both.

A reward is a payback for past effort and/or a contract for effort expected in the future. Punishment is, likewise, a restitution for past damages and/or a deterrent to prevent future damages.

In business transactions, the allocation between past and future reward and punishment is made explicit. When you reward a plumber who has just fixed your drains, he gives you a receipt marked “Paid in full.” There’s no confusion about who owes what. In business, we send and receive clear signals distinguishing fulfilled and unfulfilled contracts, accounts paid and accounts payable, remuneration for past services and down payments on future services.

In everyday social interactions, however — even everyday business-management transactions — the allocation between past and future is left ambiguous, sometimes with costly results. We go the extra mile for someone, and, wouldn’t you know it, they don’t repay us. We thought we were doing fine, and now they tell us they expected a whole lot more. Because we don’t signal our allocation between past and future explicitly, we risk becoming disappointed or disappointing.

So, why aren’t we more explicit? Paradoxically, because being vague signals trust and intimacy. There’s no better way to demonstrate that you’re feeling close and committed to someone than by not caring who pays for or owes what.

It comes down to our efforts to build virtuous circles, those self-perpetuating feedback loops that have been a topic here in recent months. Some feedback loops are vicious (for example, punishing someone who becomes resentful, so we punish them more, so they get more resentful), but, for simplicity, let’s concentrate here on the ones we like — building those relationships in which we get so much for what we give that we give some more. Such relationships rock back and forth in the sweet spot of sublime give-and-take. They swing, and, as with pumping your legs on a swing set, it’s not easy to distinguish the part of your pumping motivated by past motion from the part designed to perpetuate the motion.

Every time it’s our turn to acknowledge a friend’s kindness, we implicitly send two messages at once — gratitude for past actions, and expectation of future ones. And, if we’re really not keeping track, if we’re really in the groove together, what difference does it make how we allocate the kindness between accounts paid and accounts payable? In the groove, knowing which part of a friend’s kindness is gratitude for things we’ve done for them in the past and which part is a hope that we’ll do more for them in the future becomes as pragmatically inconsequential as which came first, the chicken or the egg, as useless as pondering whether a two-cycle piston’s backstroke is the result of the last combustion or is meant to clear the cylinder for the next combustion.

Indeed, the last thing you want to hear from a dear friend is the allocation spelled out explicitly: “Thank you, dear! I note your kindness and will regard 40 percent of it as compensation for my past kindnesses and 60 percent as a down payment for future ones.” Laying out the specifics like that would be terribly distancing, like someone shouting in your ear when you’re whispering distance away. If a friend allocated like that, you would know instantly that you weren’t at whispering distance after all. Allocation signals that you friend is pulling back, backtracking to track who owes whom what.

My father was a franchiser. I asked him once how he managed the give-and-take with franchisees. He said, “If the question of who owes whom ever comes up, you’re already in trouble.” In managing the relationships, he did his utmost to keep franchisers happy enough that they didn’t want to talk allocations.

Why? Mutual commitment is a stable state, the only one in which not keeping track doesn’t cause misunderstanding. Entering or exiting a relationship — transitioning it somehow — that’s when we enter the gray area in which we can get in trouble by being either too explicit or too vague about our give-and-take. With friends, you don’t keep track. With strangers, you do. It’s that transition between friend and stranger that becomes iffy.

Committing to buying a house, you put down an explicit down payment. Earnest money — and you definitely get a receipt. Committing to a relationship, you also make down payments, but you don’t keep track of them. We say, “Don’t mention it” and “Aw, you shouldn’t have.” We fight over the check and otherwise show a reckless disregard for accounting. It’s intimacy building through obliviousness, proving we care by not caring — or at least by not letting on that we care — who gave what or what we’re owed.

Feedback and feedforward in history

Power brokers sometimes reward potential enemies, expecting that the reward will turn them into friends. It’s a gamble that sometimes doesn’t pay off: Saddam Hussein didn’t become Bush senior’s ally when the president rewarded him with arms supplies.
Nor did it pan out in post-World War I Germany. In 1933, the Nazi Party had risen to take 38 percent of the nation’s popular vote in a field of thirty political parties, but it was clear the popularity of Hitler’s party had peaked. In a fluke miscalculation, though, President Hindenburg, the aging war hero who had always loathed Hitler, decided to reward Hitler’s popularity by letting him be chancellor. He hoped that making him an ally would discourage further ambitions. Within eighteen months, though, Hindenburg was dead and Hitler had secured his dictatorship.

A similar miscalculation in AD 376 caused the end of the Western Roman Empire and led to the beginning of the Dark Ages. The Visigoths (a Germanic tribe), persecuted in the north by the Huns, asked the Roman emperor Valens whether the Visigoths could relocate into Roman territory. Valens rewarded their request with consent, expecting his kindness to be repaid with loyal Visigoth soldiers supporting his various military campaigns. Within two years, however, the Visigoths had defeated Rome from within.

When news of the Visigoths’ victory reached the Eastern Roman Empire, in Constantinople, its emperor ordered his thousands of loyal Visigoth soldiers to amass for duty. While they awaited orders, the emperor had them all killed. Dying, they must have wondered what they had done to deserve it. In fact, they had done nothing — yet. The punishment was feedforward, not feedback.

At the root of religious rifts

The entire debate between Luther and the Catholics, causing the greatest rift in Christian history, is about this question of feedback and feedforward. The terms of art in this matter are law and grace. To Catholics, law is that which God expects of us, and grace is God’s choice to forgive us for not complying completely. For Lutherans, on the other hand, grace is what God gives to us freely — and, receiving it, we want to give to him unconstrained compliance with the law.

Religion strives to solidify the relationship between God and humanity — that is, to turn it into a self-perpetuating cycle of our devotion and God’s love. Churches have exerted fantastic quantities of energy trying to figure out the proper way to prime the pump and get the spiritual juices flowing. Following the teachings of Augustine, the Catholics believe that pump priming starts with the law, and us wanting grace. When God sees us trying to follow his law, and working hard at being righteous in our meager human way, God gives grace to us. With his grace, it becomes much easier to love God wholeheartedly. According to Augustine, we have to do a little first — which God, in his generosity, more than amply compensates us for, which we then pay back with a lot more until there’s such an abundance of love, who’s counting?

Luther found this system troubling. First, he never knew whether he had done enough to prime the Catholics’ pump. In an all-consuming way, he was as anxious in the same manner that we are when we’re not sure how much to tip — or, for that matter, how much to pay whenever the price isn’t clear and you can’t tell who, if anyone, is counting.

Luther kept thinking he was shortchanging God, and so he confessed incessantly. His confessor, speaking on behalf of Jesus, would forgive Luther for his sins, but for the longest time, Luther doubted Jesus’s forgiveness. Then, one day, he felt guilty for doubting it, and, for the first time, he took it in.

Grace, he decided, primes the pump first. Like a powerful friend, God just says, “I’ll give,” and when you say, “I promise I’ll pay you back,” God says, “Whatever — no worries; I love you just the same,” which makes you know that you’re intimate with him, which makes you love him with all your heart, which makes you want to obey the law.

But obeying up front so as to deserve God’s love? That’s not the point with Luther. He thought the law is useful up front only in that it scares you into wondering whether you’re doing enough, which can then wake you up to God’s ever present grace. To Luther, by the way, grace is whispered in your ear — very intimate.

Here we get another of those classic paradoxical self-help koans that won’t let you alone until you get over it, upleveling to where you can see that it’s a paradox: “Obey God’s law, because he forgives you your trespasses.” When you do uplevel, you notice it depends: With God, with friends, with any pump you’re looking to prime so it becomes self-perpetuating, sometimes you should give abundantly and without regard for how much, pouring your all in, just giving because the pump is going to start flowing. And sometimes that’s the foolhardy thing to do, and you would be far better off keeping an account of what you get for what you give.

Everyday feedback and feedforward:

A mother wants her daughter to be a great artist. She wants her to join her in the groove — a common love of art. The daughter isn’t quite there, though. To prime the pump, Mom might praise her daughter’s artwork not because it’s great but, rather, to encourage the daughter’s future effort. They’re intimate — they go way back — so Mom doesn’t say, “This compliment on your work is actually only 10 percent for work accomplished and 90 percent deposit on a commission for future great works of art,” and it’s just as well. This girl is one who happens to have it in her to continue. She’s chuffed that Mom thinks her painting is great, and excited to do another painting. And another. Good call, Mom!

When I was wee, my mom surprised me one day. I had been painting with confidence, basking in her reliably rewarding praise. One day, during my “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” period, I produced another of my pieces, a large work with tempera paint drooling down it in many hues toward a muddy-brown foreground. When I called her in to praise it, she told me it wasn’t good enough and that I shouldn’t go outside until I’d painted something better. It was a good call on her part — not that it spurred me to painterly greatness. But it did recalibrate me to a higher standard just when I had gotten complacent.

Twenty-five years later, during my early, sometimes grueling years as a parent, I remember it dawning on me with a shudder one day that there is an ambiguity built in to the rewards and punishments of parenting. I had always assumed that parenting was my investment for my future, that the rewards of raising my children would be realized when they were older and would pay me back in appreciation and kindnesses. Suddenly, though, it hit me that maybe that’s the reverse of how it works: Parenting isn’t an investment in my future; it’s a payback to my parents for raising me.

Of course, it’s both remuneration and promise. The cross-generational life cycle is the ultimate in intimate reciprocating grooves.