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Obligation principle


Principles > Obligation principle

Principle | How it works | So what?


People will do thing that they feel obliged to do, whether they want to do them or not.

How it works

When I feel obliged to help you, I sense a powerful internal tension that can only be relieved when I discharge that obligation.

Obligation is often so strong that the person to whom a person is obliged is able to make specific requests that the person who is obliged must fulfil.

In many ways, obligation is a deeper principle than friendship, reciprocity or exchange, as it is the force that underpins each of these other drivers.

Rights and duties

A fundamental belief that many people have is that some people have rights and that others have duties towards them. For example children have rights and parents have duties towards their children. Likewise citizens have rights which the government has a duty to uphold. Citizens also have duties as defined by governments.

Some people are more duty-bound than others, but when we feel a sense of duty we also feel a strong compulsion to perform and discharge that duty.

Families often have a strong sense of duty to one another (and children seem to believe they have quite significant rights). There is a saying 'blood is thicker than water' and familial obligation is indeed a significant force.


In the Reciprocity Norm, when one person does something for another person, that other person has a social debt to repay. The problem with reciprocity is that exactly what must be repaid is unclear and the obliged person can ask for far more than they gave. This is perhaps because they have proved themselves caring and trusting, which obliges the other person to act likewise.


Obligations are also set in place by contracts, whether they are legal or social. When I promise or agree to do something then I am obliged to do so. In formal situations, contracts may be set in place with a binding ritual whereby each person swears to fulfil their obligations and may sign a document to confirm this. Marriage, for example, comes with many obligations, from mutual support to fidelity.

So what?

Find out how duty-bound people are and what they believe are their duties, then reframe what you want doing as a duty to others (children often manipulate their parents in this way, as do spouses with one another).

You can also leverage the reciprocity norm by first doing something for the other person, then asking for what you seek from them.

At the very least, you can make a formal agreement.

See also

Exchange principle, Reciprocity Norm, Pregiving, Reciprocity

Theories about conforming


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