“The rule says we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.”Robert Cialdini, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”
It feels great to receive.
But why do you always feel that you must return the favor?
Reciprocity is the human obligation to give, to receive, and to pay back.
According to sociological studies, no human society in the world doesn’t subscribe to the rule of reciprocity. We want to treat others like they treat us.
Give a little. Receive a lot in return.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
Anything “free” seems great but usually comes with the emotional price to repay others’ kindness.
Reciprocity is transactional if we owe a friend $100. You know the exact amount you have to pay back to get even.
But your’ debt’ is more ambiguous for things less straightforward, like favors or invites. In these situations, reciprocity often causes us to pay back more than we’ve received.
Real-world examples of reciprocity
Your friends and family can trigger reciprocity if they give you:
- Unexpected gifts
- Christmas cards
- Dinner invitations
These are small gifts and favors that seem free and without obligations. But we all know they’re not.
Companies also try to leverage reciprocity when they offer you:
- Product samples
- Free trials
- Ask for referrals
- Personalized service
It’s no one’s surprise that companies use these tricks to sell more goods. So why keep at it? Because they work extraordinarily well, as you will see in this next example.
Can the server influence your tip?
I know this sounds ridiculous, but a paltry mint can substantially affect how much you tip at the restaurant.
Get this. In a series of studies, when diners got a single mint at the end of their meal, tips increased by 3 percent. When restaurant guests got two mints, tips didn’t just double. They soared by 14 percent.
But the biggest tip was yet to come:
“If the server provides one mint, walks away from the table, but pauses, turns back and says, ‘For you nice people, here’s an extra mint,’ tips go through the roof. A 23% increase influenced not by what was given, but how it was given.”Dr. Robert Cialdini on influenceatwork.com
Next round is on me
The thing about reciprocity is that it needs to balance out.
Think about that guy that never buys a round of drinks but accepts your round of beers without a care. What the hell?
We never talk about it when it plays out, but the whole barstool ensemble has the same verdict for Frank the Freeloader: If this guy doesn’t reciprocate (that is, buy the next round of beers), we downgrade his social rank on the spot. We might not even invite him the next time.
The rose trick
Did you ever notice how hard it is to reject gifts, even if you don’t want them?
People who exploit the reciprocity rule understand that most people find distinguishing between favors and manipulation hard.
In nearly every major European city, like Milan or Barcelona, you will eventually stumble across a fellow who offers you a rose. For free, it seems. And as if he’s received some Hare Krishna combat training, he doesn’t just offer you the rose. The guy insists you take it.
If you’ve ever walked into this reciprocity trap, which is what this is, you also know that the rose isn’t for free.
Once you reluctantly accept his ‘gift,’ the nice, unknown signore morphs into a mafioso street hustler and expects you to pay him an absurd amount for his “friendly gesture.”
Now, you’re trapped. Your body freezes when you try to return the rose. It goes against everything you know. So, with great regret, the easiest way out is to cough up the dough.
But how does this work? Well, the street vendor gains full leverage on you with the three golden rules of reciprocity …
Reciprocity is most effective when you:
- Are the first to give
- Make your gift personalized
- Make it unexpected
So yes, the obligation to repay is the essence of the reciprocity rule. But the obligation to receive makes the rule so easy to exploit, especially when you’re also surprised.
When we receive, we also reduce our ability to choose who we are indebted to, which puts the power in the hands of others.
People that use reciprocity control three important things:
- They go first
- They decide the form of the favor, which means
- They also decide the return favor
Reciprocity also comes in handy during a negotiation: When you’re asked something way too much, which you decline. Afterward, you get a smaller request, which you accept, even if you don’t really want to.
– I believe I deserve to get a 9% pay raise.
– No, that’s just too much.
– Well, if you can’t go to 9%, how about a 5% raise?
– Well, okay, I guess that’s more reasonable.
This simple example of negotiation exploits a combo of reciprocity AND anchoring bias. The second proposal looks like a smaller request (a bargain to the other side) than if you had just asked for it immediately.
But get this:
- This technique creates the illusion that both sides influence the outcome
- The person exposed to the large-request-then-smaller-request sequence feels responsibility for the final deal compared to someone facing a non-negotiating opponent
- People who are targets of this technique are more satisfied with the final arrangement …
- … and people satisfied with the final arrangement are more likely willing to agree to even further arrangements.
Never go too far to get square
Unsurprisingly, we like to do favors for people we like. The weird thing is that we will also reciprocate if we are indebted to someone we don’t like!
If you’ve ever seen tv shows like Billions and Succession, you see how power and advancement are a byproduct of large scores of favors provided to others who will help you succeed when you call in those favors.
The real world isn’t that far off.
Sometimes it’s: “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” Other times it’s more like: “I’ll scratch your back if you don’t stab mine.”
Remember to take a step back when you feel obliged to say yes when in every other case, you would’ve said no.