In Robert Cialdini’s Influence: Science and Practice (2009), he describes the powerful rule of reciprocity in the second chapter of his book. As one of the most influential dynamics of human behavior, the reciprocation rule essentially states that if someone gives something to us, we feel obligated to repay that debt. There are several characteristics of this rule, which make it phenomenally compelling - the rules’ historical and cultural universality, the impact on individuals, groups, politics and culture, the potential for exploitation and compliance, and disparities of indebtedness and concessions with the rule.
The rule of reciprocity was fundamental in human evolution. Cialdini notes the work of anthropologist Richard Leakey, who considers the rule of reciprocity as a defining factor of what it means to be human, "We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation" (2009, p. 19). By obligating the recipient to an act of future repayment, the rule of reciprocation allows one person to give something to another with the confidence that it is not being lost. The mutually beneficial exchanges of our ancestors evolved into a sound interdependence among humans. As a result, people were (and are) trained from an early age to comply with the rule of reciprocity.
Interestingly, the rule of reciprocation not only has longstanding roots in the human psyche, its’ universality applies cross culturally. According to Cialdini, anthropologists report that the rule of reciprocity is apparent in all human societies (p. 19). Although different cultures may employ the rule in various ways, it still exists. For those who “fail to conform” to the reciprocity rule, public disapproval is likely to follow. Researcher found in one cross-cultural study that breaking the reciprocity rule in the other direction, giving something and refusing payment orgifts in return, is disliked, as well (p. 34).
How many of us have been told that when borrowing something, we should return it to the owner in better condition than when we first received it? In effect, this shows the rule of reciprocity. But what about gifts or exchanges we don’t want? Do we still feel indebted? Absolutely. Cialdini cites a number of examples in which the receiver never requested the gift, good or service but felt inclined to repay whatever token received (for more, see the experiment with Joe and the Coke, p. 21 & p. 31). Furthermore, the repaid debt is often of more value than the initial gift, which has incredible implications to the influencing effect of the rule.
Cialdini notes Marcel Mauss’ study of gift giving, "There is an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay. Although the obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit" (p. 31). The rule can trigger unparalleled cognitive dissonance, which often leads to unequal exchanges. When the discomfort over the indebtedness combines with the fear of external shame and judgment we will often give back more than we receive to ensure that we are not subject to these combined psychological costs (Soules, 2012).
Another way in which the rule of reciprocity is so powerful is how we are compelled to overcome our feelings of dislike or suspicion for the person who gives us a gift. Cialdini discusses Hare Krishna followers as an example (pushing the “gift” of the flower in one’s hand and soliciting donations in return). Gavin deBecker cites this phenomenon in his book, The Gift of Fear (1999) in which people ignore their own discomfort in order to “repay” another’s act of kindness (again, even if unsolicited). As both authors note, exploitation can occur with this process. There are numerous examples of the rule within the political sphere- contributions, “logrolling” and political patronage.
On this occasion, the Boy Scout requested that Cialdini purchase a ticket to a Boy Scout event for $5. The author declined but made a concession when the Boy Scout offered a chocolate bar for $1 a piece. Despite not liking chocolate bars, Cialdini illustrates the concept of reciprocal concession; he changed from noncompliant to compliant when he was moved from a larger request to a smaller request (p. 37). The art of negotiation encompasses this phenomenon – something excessive is initially thrown out so that a fairer agreement can finally be settled upon. It is the classic concept of compromise, with the rule of reciprocity providing the framework as to why we are often compelled to concede. Cialdini continues his narration on reciprocal concession by noting the human value of such a process.
Cialdini describes several experiments, which reveal the rejection-then-retreat strategy of concession. Think of a classic negotiations situation in which incredibly stringent demands are placed yet slowly whittled away. The initial demander never expected their requests to be met, but produced them with the explicit purpose of getting their original idea approved. In rejection-then-retreat, a feeling of responsibility results when the person accepting the offer has helped craft the agreement through the negotiation process. What is most fascinating is that the conceding person is more likely to follow through with the agreement, and even make future concessions. The person accepting the lesser offer feels satisfied because the process has worked favorably (even though victims of this strategy often end up conceding more than they would if the tactic had not been employed; Cialdini, 2009, p. 51; Soules, 2012).
Are we powerless to the strength of the rule of reciprocity? Despite the rule’s influence, we have the ability to effectively discern, adjust, or simply say “no” to reciprocation. "It is essential to recognize that the requester who invokes the reciprocation rule (or any other weapon of influence) to gain our compliance is not the real opponent. The real opponent is the rule" (Cialdini, 2009, p. 47). We don’t need to reject the services, favors, or kindnesses of others, but we do want to evaluate intention, as well as our return concessions. If we feel that we are being tricked, then Cialdini recommends that we redefine the initial favor so that we no longer feel a need to respond with a favor or concession (p. 49). By knowingly engaging in the exchange of reciprocity, we can minimize the potential effects of exploitation.
Cialdini, R.B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
deBecker, G. (1999). The gift of fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence. New York: Random House.
Soules, M. (2012). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. Media Studies. Retrieved from http://www.media-studies.ca/index.htm.