Influence and Persuasion: The Rule of Reciprocity

by Dean Rieck

This is part of a series of articles on the science of influence and persuasion. It is based in large part on a book by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Part 1: How to Trigger the "Yes" Response
Part 2: The Rule of Reciprocity
Part 3: The Rule of Consistency
Part 4: The Rule of Social Proof
Part 5: The Rule of Authority, Liking, and Scarcity

I'm sitting in a restaurant with an out-of-town client.

It's informal. Pizza. Bread sticks. Beer. We chat about our projects. Baseball. Make small talk.

Then it happens. The check arrives.

My client and I both dive for it. Unfortunately, he's closer and snatches it up.

I say, "No. This is my treat."

He shakes his head, "Won't hear of it. I'm happy to pick up the tab."

He firmly tucks his credit card in with the slip. "You can get it next time when you visit my town."

With resignation, I say, "Thanks. I ... uh ... appreciate it."

And I do appreciate it, but something feels wrong. I can't figure it out. I get free food, but I'm uneasy about something.

Two weeks later, I've forgotten all about it. But when the same client asks me to do something extra on a project — something not in our contract — I agree without thinking. He asks, and while I would usually refuse, I say, "Yes."

The Rule of Reciprocity

What just happened here? What happened is that I just fell victim to the Rule of Reciprocity, which is the first of several principles of influence that we'll be looking at in this series.

The Rule of Reciprocity firmly states that we are all bound — even driven — to repay debts of all kinds. Someone does something for you. Then you feel obligated to repay. It's an almost automatic reaction.

For example: You're mailing invitations for a party and decide to invite that couple down the street. You don't like them. You don't really want them at your party. However, they invited you to their party four months ago, so you feel compelled to invite them to yours.

You get a Christmas card from someone you haven't heard from in years and immediately add their name to your mailing list. You know they're not part of your life anymore. You may never see them again. You already send way too many cards. But, they sent a card to you, so you automatically send one in return.

A co-worker asks you to fill in for him over the weekend and you agree without thinking. You even had plans. However, he filled in for you once before, so how can you refuse?

Reciprocity is at work in all these examples. When one person does something for another, that other person senses that a debt is owed and is compelled to repay.

Why does Reciprocity work like this? Because like all the principles of influence that we'll discuss, Reciprocity is a shortcut for making decisions. Life is too complicated to carefully evaluate every element of every situation, so we learn to take shortcuts to help us make what are usually reasonable and reliable decisions.

These decisions are based on very limited information. If you're looking for investment advise, for example, you may choose a newsletter based solely on the authority of the publisher (another principle of influence we'll look at later in this series).

With Reciprocity, we are able to quickly decide whether to do something for someone based solely on our prior experience with that person. So, if someone has done something for us, and they ask for a favor later on, we often quickly — and automatically — decide to say, "Yes."

Just how powerful is Reciprocity? It's more than just a polite urge to play fair with people. Sociologist Alvin Gouldner says that there is no human society on earth that does not follow the Rule of Reciprocity.

And cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox go as far as to claim that we live in a "web of indebtedness" and this web is central to the human experience, responsible for the division of labor, all forms of commerce, and how society is organized into interdependent units.

Therefore, Reciprocity is a deep and powerful principle that, under the right circumstances, is all but impossible to resist.

And studies show that it can generate a "yes" response to your requests even if your initial gift is not asked for. Or when the person you're giving a gift to doesn't like you. Or when the gift obviously results in an unfair or uneven exchange.

The Amway BUG and Hare Krishnas

There are some remarkable examples of how the Rule of Reciprocity has been used to dramatically increase the size and number of "yes" responses in sales situations. Here are two:

Whether by genius or chance, Amway distributors came upon the idea of giving prospects a package of product samples — cleaners, deodorizers, insect killers, and so on — which they call the BUG. The distributor leaves a BUG with a homeowner for up to 3 days. No cost or obligation. All they ask is that the homeowner try out the products.

Later, the representative comes back to pick up the BUG and ask for orders. Having been given products to sample in such a generous way, the sense of obligation is overwhelming, and many homeowners order products on the spot. One Amway distributor reported that the response was "Unbelievable! We've never seen such excitement. Product is moving at an unbelievable rate ..."

Another example from some years ago is the Hare Krishna technique of giving unwary travelers a flower. The Krishna disciple would say that the flower was a gift. Then when the gift was accepted, the disciple would ask for a donation.

With a pretty flower in hand, it was hard to then refuse a smiling request for a small donation. And those little flowers and small donations added up nicely, helping to build a multibillion dollar religious empire that spans the globe.

Putting Reciprocity to Work

The formula for using the Rule of Reciprocity to your benefit is simple: Give something away — a gift, a service, valuable information, assistance, or anything — to create in the other person a feeling of indebtedness. Once the other person feels indebted to you, then you ask for what you want and let the Rule of Reciprocity go to work.

That's it.

Can this be applied to selling? It already is, though, perhaps, unwittingly. However, by understanding the principle, you can harness its full power more often and more effectively.

For optimum results, I offer these five suggestions:

1. Be the first to give something. In all circumstances, the person who gives first is in control. Whoever is on the receiving end of your gift is then in your debt. And that is the situation you want to create and maintain.

What can you give? Anything: a free booklet, free planning kit, free gift, free survey, free sample, free catalog, free special report, or virtually anything else that's related to your product or service, as long as it's free.

2. Give something that is obviously and exclusively for the benefit of the recipient. People do not respond favorably when they feel they are being manipulated. So, you must not allow your gift giving to degenerate into an obvious ploy — "Look at the wonderful thing I've given you. Now you owe me a favor in return."

Your gift should be exclusively for the recipient's benefit. Your gift must not be self-serving or conditional in any way. It must benefit your recipient whether or not you get anything out of it.

3. Give something that has real value to the recipient. The more valuable, substantial, and truly helpful your offer is, the more indebted your prospect will feel. Chest-thumping corporate brochures won't generate indebtedness, because they are all about you. What you give should be all about the person you're giving it to.

4. Put a personal face on your gift. Whenever possible, make it clear that whatever you're offering is coming from a particular person. It's easier to feel indebted to a real person than to a faceless corporate entity. If your offer comes in a letter, make the gift come from the signer. If it's a television or radio spot, make it come from the spokesperson.

5. Keep on giving. Reciprocity is more than a technique to get one order or one lead or one donation. The key is to create a feeling of debt and to maintain that feeling of debt.

So, offer something extra that your customer or prospect didn't ask for. When you make a sale, deliver more than is expected. And continue to give, before, during, and after every transaction.

When you intelligently employ the Rule of Reciprocity, the more you give, the more you will receive.

Note: I am indebted to Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. for his personal advice and his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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