Did Karna Fall Prey To The Reciprocity Bias?

“There are slavish souls who carry their appreciation for favors done
them so far that they strangle themselves with the rope of gratitude.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

A few days ago, an old friend of mine told me the story of Vasant, a man in his early forties, who got tempted by the bull-run in the Indian stock market and decided to try his luck in equities. He borrowed heavily from his brother and invested the money in small cap stocks. He incurred massive losses and lost a chunk of his capital. In order to make up for the losses, he gradually started taking huge positions in penny stocks. As pressure mounted up on him to repay the debt, he decided to try his luck in futures which again wiped off a chunk of his remaining borrowed capital!

What could possibly explain this kind of behaviour?

Apart from greed, another possible reason could be the ‘reciprocity bias’.

Rolf Dobelli has talked about this cognitive bias in his book, ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’. He explains that people have extreme difficulty being in another person’s debt and they tend to make irrational decisions to repay the debt/favour.

Rolf states that many philanthropic organizations exploit this behaviour. He writes, “You may have come across disciples of the Hare Krishna sect floating around in saffron-coloured robes as you hurried to catch a flight or a train to your destination. A member of the sect presented you with a small flower and a smile. If you’re like most people, you took the flower, if only not to be rude. If you tried to refuse, you would have heard a gentle ‘Take it, this is our gift to you.’ If you wanted to dispose of the flower in the next trashcan, you found that there were already a few there. But that was not the end. Just as your bad conscience started to tug at you, another disciple of Krishna approached you, this time asking for a donation. In many cases, this plea was successful – and so pervasive that many airports banned the sect from the premises.”

Rolf calls the above technique of first give, then take as gentle blackmail.

At the outset, the concept seems amazingly true and pervasive. Consider this, just before the battle of Kuruksehtra was about to begin, Krishna met Karna and asked him why was he fighting from the side of Kauravas when he knew very well that they represented adharma.

“Ohh Karna! you are a truthful person, you have never violated what you accepted as truth. Then how can you side with Duryodhana, who represents adharma?”― Krishna

“With all due respect to you Krishna, who are you to define what my dharma is? I am aware of my dharma and I am doing it every single day”― Karna

“And what is your dharma, may I know?”― Krishna

“My Dharma is to protect my friend when he needs me the most. Dharma or righteousness has never been my friend. I have only one friend and only one dharma. It’s called Duryodhana.”― Karna

Interestingly, Krishna tried to reason with Karna by explaining that may be Duryodhana had intentionally bestowed all the favours on Karna to win his loyalty, as Karna was one of the greatest warriors of those times.

“Ohh Karna, it is true that it’s not easy to repay the debt of kindness. But, if it is a matter of truth and falsity, dharma and adharma, light and darkness, is it necessary to repay the debt at any cost? Isn’t it better to remain indebted rather than taking the side of adharma?”

Krishna continues, ‘is it that Duryodhana tried to buy your loyalty by making you the King of Anga?’

‘Even if Duryodhana bought me, it was me who sold myself’― Karna

Finally, when Karna did not give in, Krishna in his desperate attempt to bring Karna to his side, revealed Karna’s identity to him.

‘Ohh Karna, do you know that you are the eldest Kunti Putra. You deserve to be the king of Indraprastha. Come, join us. All the Pandavas will welcome you’― Krishna

‘Thank you for telling me that I am the eldest Kunti Putra, I have been searching this answer all my life………… I know that the defeat of Kauravas is certain, yet I will fight under Durtodhana’s flag. For him, I will even accept defeat’― Karna

Karna’s desire to repay Duryodhana’s debt was so intense that he fought against his own brothers and embraced defeat with valour.

Could this be regarded as an irrational behavior? Did Karna fall prey to the reciprocity bias?

In case of Vasant, I am tempted to say, ‘yes’, it was an irrational behaviour indeed. But in case of Karna, the notion of rationality seems a bit foggy.

Few of us might consider Karna’s behaviour as irrational but what if someone (Karna) refuses to adopt someone else’s (Krishna’s) view of rationality?

Is it necessary to live our lives like a rivulet of zero-sum decisions?

Is it justified to label someone as irrational just because they don’t share our values?

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