‘Pay every debt, as if God wrote the bill’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘One of the most potent weapons of influence around us (is) the rule for reciprocation. The rule says that we should try to repay in kind, what another person has provided us.’

This is the second post in a series on Robert B. Chialdini’s classic work on the study of persuasion, compliance and change, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition.

To repay a favor, to carry and discharge the burden of obligation, is pervasive in human culture‘sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner can report that there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule’. Indeed, ‘a widely shared and strongly held feeling of future obligation made an enormous difference in human social evolution’. In human culture ‘there is an obligation to give, and obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay’.

The rule for reciprocity is so strong that it overwhelms factors that otherwise influence our willingness to comply, such as whether we like or dislike the person making the request. Chialdini illustrates with the case of the Hare Krishna Society.

‘The unsuspecting passerby who suddenly finds a flower pressed into his hands or pinned to his jacket is under no circumstances allowed to give is back, even if he asserts that he does not want it. “No, it is our gift to you,” says the solicitor.’ ‘Only after the Krishna member has thus brought the force of the reciprocation rule to bear on the situation is the target asked to provide a contribution to the Society. This benefactor-before-beggar strategy has been wildly successful for the Hare Krishna Society, producing large-scale economic gains and funding the ownership of temples, businesses, houses, and property in 321 centers in the United States and overseas.’ Amazing but true.

In marketing, the free sample ‘has a long and effective history’ exploiting the rule for reciprocity. Amway stumbled onto this with the BUG, a collection of Amway products, carried to the customer’s house and offered free for a day or two. It turns out that on collection the customer seldom returns that BUG without some purchase of product. When originally introduced, Amway distributors were shocked at its effectiveness; ‘The most fantastic retail idea we’ve ever had’, ‘Product is moving at an unbelievable rate’, ‘We’ve never seen a response within our entire organization like this’.

The rule for reciprocity can enforce uninvited debts. The Krishnas’ operating tactic is a great example, and there are others. ‘How many times have each of us received small gifts through the mail – personalized address labels, greeting cards, key rings – from charity agencies that ask for funds in an accompanying note?’ The key is to package it as a ‘gift’. This is what triggers the rule and the associated sense of obligation. No such obligation exists if we view it simply as unwanted commercial product.

The rule for reciprocity can trigger unfair exchanges‘A small initial favor can produce a sense of obligation to agree a substantially larger return favor’. Most women understand the uncomfortable sense of obligation that can go with an expensive dinner or even something as small as the price of a drink. Their instinct is not misplaced. Research suggests that ‘if, instead of paying for them herself, a woman allows a man to buy her drinks, she is immediately judged (by both men and women) as more sexually available to him’.

A more subtle effect of the rule is for reciprocal concessions‘Another consequence of the rule, however, is an obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us.’ This underpins the rejection-then-retreat technique, useful is formal and informal negotiations. ‘Suppose you want me to agree to a certain request. One way to increase your chances would be first to make a larger request of me, one that I will most likely turn down. Then, after I have refused, you would make the smaller request that you were really interested in all along.’  Examples and applications abound:

  • Labor negotiators will often open with an extreme position, expecting to retreat to their real goal.
  • A door-to-door salesperson will ask for the names of friends and neighbors as referrals. If you rejected the sale, you are much more likely to comply with the request and give up your friends.
  • The retail-store sales practice of ‘talking the top of the line’. They start with the deluxe model, and if unsuccessful retreat to a more reasonably priced model.

Not only are acts of concession a more effective bargaining technique, they produce two other striking results. Studies show that your negotiating opponent will feel more responsible for the outcome, because they believe they produced your concessions. Furthermore, they feel more satisfied with the outcome. This helps explain why they are then more likely to agree to further such arrangements.

How to say no

We could always say no to every request, but this is difficult to do. And ‘if we always assume the worst, it would not be possible to receive the benefits of any legitimate favors or concessions offered by individuals who had no intention of exploiting the reciprocity rule’.

Instead we could accept favors and concessions at face value, but then discern whether it is in fact a compliance device.  Favors should be met with favors, but tricks should not. If it turns out you’re being manipulated, say no with a clear conscience. Or better still, take what they are offering and show them the door. ‘After all, the reciprocity rule asserts that if justice is to be done, exploitation attempts should be exploited.’


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