Economics is really all about incentives and their effect on behaviour at the micro and macro level. My training in economics emphasized the role of prices in communicating information about scarcity and opportunity cost and providing the incentives that affect economic behaviour. Yet, all of our economic behaviour is also rooted on an institutional framework that includes not only the structure of markets and public institutions but also codes of human behaviour such as honesty and trust. None of this is new but it brings me to my point-how ingrained codes of social behaviour can be used. Simply being helpful or asking for help or looking needy can be used to generate an opportunity for further economic interaction, which is not always to your benefit. I suppose the old adage is that no good deed goes unpunished.
I had some interesting experiences while travelling recently. No doubt others have had similar experiences but I am relatively inexperienced and they were new to me. First case, the Istanbul shoe brush example. While walking along you pass by one or two shoeshine workmen sitting on the curb. They suddenly get up and walk in front of you and drop a brush and continue ambling along. You notice the brush drop and of course helpfully call out and gesture to the fellow that he has dropped his brush. He immediately turns and picks up his brush and exudes gratitude and then offers to shine your shoes. He was extremely persistent but I nonetheless declined the offer- my guess was that he was not going to give me a free shoe shine. He was merely exploiting my sense of concern over the dropped brush to initiate a transaction. Once he had shined my shoes he was going to demand money, which would lead to a prolonged period of haggling. I walked on and later began to have second thoughts that maybe I had been wrong in my assessment- my wife certainly thought it was sincere. That was until later when a second shoe shine worker "lost" his brush and the same thing happened. Obviously, this was either a pretty deliberate act to lure tourists or Istanbul shoeshine men have serious dexterity and coordination problems when carrying the tools of their trade that require professional help.
Here is another example from Istanbul. You have paused on a street corner looking at a map trying to decide which way to the Blue Mosque. Routes always look shorter, tidier and more direct on Google maps. Someone comes along and asks if you need directions. We say yes and expect the individual to simply point the way. All of a sudden he beckons you to follow him and before you know it, he becomes your own private tour guide. Despite your thanks that you want to be on your way he not only leads you to the Blue Mosque, but also whisks you to the front of the queue (which was not our intention) and before you know it you are in the mosque. As this is happening you ask him if he wants a fee but he says not at all- but then adds he has a store that sells carpets and would like to do a presentation for you. He is there waiting for you as you exit. In the end, he did provide a useful if unasked for service given the length of the queue and so got a few dollars but he was also extremely persistent in trying to get you into his store and seemed pretty upset that we were not going to shop. What convinced him in the end was the firm assertion that he would be wasting his time in trying to sell us a carpet. This sort of reminded me of people in New Orleans once who wanted me to go to a condo demonstration in return for a "free gift'.
In Italy, one also needs to be on the lookout for "tourists" who look like they need assistance. While walking with our group back to the bus in Pisa, we suddenly notice two ladies carrying a beach bag and astutely studying a map quietly join our group. They seemed to be lost but did not ask for directions. We were about to ask them if they needed help when we noticed them getting closer and closer to several ladies with large purses in front of us and upon closer viewing noticed they were rather young and somewhat dishevelled looking. The map they held was quite old and torn and the beach bag had seen better days. These are not tourists but pickpockets. My wife suddenly remarks to me loudly in Italian - "Watch those two, they are probably up to something". They suddenly looked up warily, halted and fell back from the group and then calmly melted away. I don't think anyone else in the group noticed them.
It would appear that the general human proclivity towards helpfulness is definitely a double-edged sword. There is a natural human tendency to offer assistance or be helpful but sometimes situations are not always what they appear. In the Istanbul cases, the act of offering or receiving assistance was used as a lever to lay the groundwork for a more profitable future transaction. Harmless enough I suppose but definitely time consuming. Perhaps you can say it was simply a marketing tool to get your attention. In the Italian case, looking lost or needy was probably a ruse to blend into a group of tourists in order to engage in a more direct involuntary transfer.