Quantifying Favors

Alice and Bob are good friends. Bob caught a cold and called Alice for help. He wanted Alice to go to a pharmacy and bring him some cold medicine. Alice did that and I would like to assign a number to this act of giving. How can we quantify this favor?

First, we need to choose a scale. Usually favors cost us in time, money and emotions. Alice spent half an hour driving around, plus $5 on the medicine (we’ll skip the cost of gas for simplicity). It also cost her emotionally, especially because the traffic was really bad.

Measuring everything on three scales is complicated. I would like to convert everything to one scale, because in the future I intend to compare this act of giving to other favors Alice does. For example, Alice knows for sure that this favor for Bob was a less costly favor than her phone call yesterday to her ex-mother-in-law, even though the phone call took only five minutes and didn’t cost any money.

We probably can convert everything to dollars, but I am trying to resist this money-driven society that measures everything in dollars. So, I prefer to use points. Each dollar translates to one point, but time and emotion are more subjective.

Alice makes two calculations in her head: what she really spent and what she is owed.

Here’s what she spent: Alice counts 5 points for the medicine. She also views her time as money. She charges $100 an hour for consulting and values all her time at this rate. Hence, she adds 50 points for time spent. Traffic was bad, but not so bad. She thinks that her traffic stress cost her 15 points. Since she also had to cancel her date with her boyfriend, she estimates her annoyance with this at 100 points. On the other hand, she got this warm feeling from helping Bob and she was happy to see him. So she thinks that she got back 30 points. Adding all this up, we get a total of 140 points. This is how much Alice thinks she spent for this particular favor.

Does it mean that Alice thinks that Bob owes her 140 points? Usually not. The calculation of how much Alice thinks Bob actually owes her is completely different. She thinks that he owes her 5 points for the cost of medicine. Also, she knows that Bob earns much less than she does and values time differently, so she think that he owes her 30 points for her time. Since Bob is not responsible for traffic, she doesn’t add traffic points. Also, she never told Bob that she had to sacrifice her date for him, so she doesn’t think it’s fair to want Bob to be thankful for the sacrifice he doesn’t know about. At the same time she hopes that one day Bob will sacrifice something for her. She can’t ignore this sacrifice completely, so she adds 10 points for that. Altogether she thinks that Bob owes her 45 points.

Do you think Bob feels as if he owes Alice 45 points? Like Alice, he also has two numbers in his mind. One number is the amount of points he received as a result of this favor and the other number is how many points he officially owes Alice.

He actually was planning to ask his neighbor to buy the medicine, but for some reason he called Alice first and she offered help. Alice was delayed at her work and arrived at Bob’s place much later than he expected. She also brought the worst flavor of the syrup. Bob doesn’t value time as much as Alice, so he thinks that Alice spent 10 points driving and 5 points on the medicine. Bob felt ill throughout Alice’s visit and did not enjoy seeing her. Combining that with her late arrival with the wrong syrup, he thinks that he was annoyed for about 15 points. So he thinks that he got zero points from this transaction.

At the same time he wants to be fair. Bob knows that Alice did her best to help him; besides he never specified the flavor he likes. As a result, he doesn’t count his annoyance in how much he owes Alice. So he thinks that he owes Alice 15 points. What Bob really did to thank Alice, I will discuss in a later blog entry.

In conclusion, let me remind you of my system. I measure all favors in points. And for each favor I assign four numbers:

  • the giver’s official favor value (in our example 45 points)
  • the giver’s hidden favor value (in our example 140 points)
  • the receiver’s official favor value (in our example 15 points)
  • the receiver’s hidden favor value (in our example 0 points)

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