2: Reciprocation

The chapter opens with an anecdote about a professor who attempted a little experiment: he sent Christmas cards to a number of complete strangers, to see how many of the recipients, people whom he had never met and who likely would not recognize his name, would respond by sending him a card in return. The precise number is not mentioned, but it's implied that many people did exactly that, and the great majority never inquired into his identity: they clearly received his card and automatically send one in return.

(EN: I looked into this. The researcher was Phil Kunz. He sent 578 cards to random strangers and received 117 in return.

This illustrates reciprocation, which is "one of the most potent weapons of influence." It's a basic practice in social interaction to return a favor to someone who has done one for us. We feel compelled to provide a gift to someone who has given one to us, invite to a party those who have invited us, return a compliment to someone who has paid us one, etc.

In essence, when we say "much obliged" to someone who has done us a favor - we mean that quite literally.

(EN: I've also observed the effect of non-reciprocation in social situations. That is, people fail to connect because neither of them takes the first step in connecting - two people who might have been friends remain aloof from one another because neither took the first step, or one person made a gesture and the other failed to reciprocate. I expect this has to do with personal power, which is off-topic, but it seems worth considering in this context as initiative is based on the expectation of reciprocation.)

Reciprocation as the Basis of Society

The author lists a number of sociologists who subscribe to the theory that reciprocation is the very basis of society. The difference between social and non-social animals is that social animals are reciprocal: in a basic sense, they share food rather than competing with one another, or divide tasks and responsibilities: some members of the group provide food, others care for the young, others are on the lookout for danger, etc.

Even in the modern day, reciprocity can be seen in the act of credit: giving something to others on faith that something of equal or greater value would be returned. If there was no faith in being repaid, there would be no incentive to lend to others. Likewise, if the worker has no faith in being paid at the end of the week, he would have no incentive to labor for an employer. In this sense, reciprocity may be delayed, but it must be expected.

Reciprocity is so strong that it often supersedes individual survival interests. He gives an example of a jaw-dropping incident, where citizens of Ethiopia in 1985, when there was widespread famine and suffering, sent a five-thousand-dollar relief donation to victims of earthquakes in Mexico. Looking into the incident, he discovered that the Ethiopian people well remembered the aid that Mexico had sent them fifty years earlier, when they had been sacked by Italy in 1935. It was the return of a favor that had been done two generations earlier.

In human societies, some of the worst sentiment is directed toward those who fail to return a favor. The labels we give to such people are loaded with negativity: whether we feel that people are ungrateful for our kindness, or take advantage of it, or are simply neglecting to repay a favor, we denigrate and shun such individuals and encourage others to avoid them.

An Experiment

The author mentions an experiment in reciprocation at Cornell (Regan) in which the subject was placed in a room with an actor, ostensibly for the purpose of studying something else. During the break, the two would converse, and the actor would bring up the subject of a raffle to which he was selling tickets.

In the control setting, the actor would simply mention it and ask the other person if they would like to purchase tickets. In the test setting, the actor would leave the room, but return with two drinks - saying that he got one for himself and brought the second for the other person - before mentioning the raffle.

While the author does not provide details, he indicates that the subjects bought tickets more often after they had been done a favor, "apparently feeling that they owed him something" in return for the favor of bringing a drink. He also indicates that, when comparing ticket purchases, those who had been done the favor bought twice as many tickets.

(EN: I looked into this as well, and there's a lot of references to this study, but none provide granular detail - and in fact most cite this book rather than the original study, which I have been unable to find.)

Reciprocation is Powerful

Reciprocation is a tool that possesses "awesome strength" and can frequently be seen to get people to consent to things that, without a feeling of indebtedness, would have surely been refused.

Under normal circumstances, people are more likely to do a favor for someone whom they like or wish to connect with socially- but when reciprocation is involved, there is a much higher chance of compliance whether they like a person or not - even to the point that they are willing to do favors for people they dislike out of a desire to be on even ground.

This is evident in that people who are widely disliked - sales operators and people who are known to have a mercenary agenda - are often successful in getting what they want of others.

He turns to the example of the Hare Krishna, whom most Americans regard as a bizarre cult of misfits who are constantly begging people for funds. The fund-raising tactic they employed was highly effective: they would give a person a gift of a flower or a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and then ask for a donation. This tactic was so economically successful that the society was able to fund temples, business, homes, and properties in 321 locations in the US and abroad.

A similar process can be seen in lobbying politicians. Though bribes of a significant amount are forbidden, politicians are allowed to accept small gifts. Lobbyists would often present such tokens during an introduction to a meeting in which they would ask for support of legislation favoring their clients. The same game is played by candidates for office who offer small favors to supporters before asking for their vote or campaign support.

An extremely common use of reciprocation in merchandising is the "free sample" of products offered to customers in a grocery store. Ostensibly, the sample is provided to enable the customer to experience the product - but it also functions in a reciprocal manner. Cialdini asserts that many people in store settings find it difficult to return the toothpick and walk away, but instead people buy some of the product "even if they might not have liked it."

Amway salesmen were trained in a similar tactic, in which they would make a gift of a selection of products to a potential customer, then return to their home a few days later to ask whether they liked the products. Because it is socially awkward to criticize a gift, the mark would indicate that they did like the items, and then the salesman would ask for an order. This was highly effective in driving sales. One distributor remarked "we've never seen a response within our entire organization like this."

A gift as simple as a cup of coffee has been found to create a negotiation advantage even in non-commercial situations: a guest who is given a gift (or who brings one) has a significant leg up in business negotiations - the counter to which was to offer a small gift in return so the "debt" would not skew negotiations. As such, the custom of exchanging gifts arose from countering a manipulation tactic. Interrogators, both police and military, also use gifts to make their subjects more compliant.

One final account tells of a woman who was part of Jim Jones's Guyana cult, who had survived the mass suicide that was committed at the command of the leader. She made specific mention of the various small favors that members of the cult had offered to do for her, but she had refused them realizing that if she accepted the favors, she would feel indebted - and she didn't want to be in a position where she felt she owed something to them.

Uninvited Debts

The author returns to the idea that reciprocation can cause us to feel indebted to strange, disliked, or unwelcome others - and it can also be triggered when someone does an uninvited favor.

Returning to the Hare Krishna, their tactic is often to press a flower into the hand of someone rather than offer it for them to take, or pin it to their clothing. There are also instances in which a mail campaign that asked for donations nearly doubled the success rate when the mailing also contained a small gift (such as return address labels).

Considering the social function of reciprocity, it serves to function to develop relationships between individuals, such that one person can initiate a relationship at minimal risk: he risks the loss of the gift or favor he extended. But as we are wired to return favors, the risk is even further reduced.

While the obligation to repay is the value of reciprocity, the obligation to gracious in accepting gifts makes the rule easy to exploit: it reduces the risk that our gift will be refused, which helps ensure that it is accepted and the obligation along with it. To refuse a gift, or show ingratitude, is unacceptable to a socialized person.

He returns to the study mentioned earlier, in which an actor brought a drink to a subject before selling them raffle tickets: there was not one single instance in which the subject refused the gift.

He returns again to the Hare Krishna, describing an incident in which a solicitor pressed a flower into the hand of a man who didn't expect it, and who protested that he didn't want it. The solicitor refused to take it back. After a moment of awkwardness, the mark reached into his pocket and handed the solicitor a dollar. In essence, he evened the scales so that he could walk away freely, feeling he owed nothing further to his accoster - and dropped the flower into a trash can when he had put some distance between them.

He adds a further observation of the group of Krishna solicitors, in which one of the members of the group would stroll to the trash cans, where people had thrown away the flowers, and brought them back to the group to be used again. So the act of throwing away the "gift" was not unusual, and the perpetrators of the scam were entirely indifferent to it: they served their purpose.

He also mentions examining some of the literature accompanying unwanted gifts in mail solicitations. None of them presented the item as a product or requested payment - as there is no cultural taboo about rejecting or returning an unwanted product - but all referred to the item as a "gift" for which no payment was required.

Unfair Exchanges

While reciprocation is based on a desire to be "even" with others, it can be used to bring about decidedly unequal results. It is an exchange of favor for favor, but a small favor can produce such a sense of obligation that the mark can be moved to return a substantially larger one.

Returning again to the Regan experiment, the price of the raffle tickets sold to the prospect were the same as the drink they were given (unrequested) - and on average, the participants in the study purchased between two and seven tickets, with an average of about five. So where participants purchased tickets at all, the return on the gift was at least double, often five times, and sometimes seven times its value.

Cialdini concedes that this experiment is open to criticism: since the price of the items is negligible, it's unlikely people take time to work out the math. But in real-life situations, it's often seen that a small favor has a considerable return: a real estate agent or car dealer can negotiate a price that is hundreds or thousands of dollars more if they provide a small gift to the customer.

We do not generally assess the monetary value of the favors involved in the exchange. He gives the example of a student of his, who had trouble starting a car and a neighbor push-started it for him. Later, he was inclined to return the favor when the same person asked to borrow his car for a few hours. In the story, the person wrecked the car and, because he had not insurance, the student bore the cost of a substantial loss.

(EN: This seems less about value and more about risk: had the student known the other person was uninsured, I don't expect he would have loaned the car - so this was an unknown risk at the time and the cost of the favor was unexpected.)

Cialdini suggests that the reason small favors can command large ones in return is that the feeling of being indebted to another person is "highly disagreeable" - so when we consider the return of a favor we are motivated to escape this unpleasant emotional state, and are not calculating the value of the exchange.

He also suggests that this stems for the social nature of human beings: we recognize relationships to be an ongoing exchange of favors, and if we should ignore a person's needs they may in future ignore ours, which would be particularly unfortunate if we were to be in a situation of extreme need. Consequently, we are less concerned with the value that they granted us in the past than with the value we may get from them in future.

A second reason is that reciprocation is expected as a matter of etiquette. We are aware that people who ignore their obligations is disliked and distrusted by others in society: people who are indebted to others or who fail to repay their debts are shunned by others, and our fear of being labeled as an undesirable causes us to do things to preserve our reputation in society. And again, the value of our reputation has significant value - so we are inclined to give significant value in exchange.

(EN: The author stops here, but I have the sense of a third factor, which is very powerful in western culture: the desire for independence. To accept charity is an act that places the recipient beneath the donor in social status. In an individualistic and egalitarian society, this is unacceptable - particularly when the other person is an undesirable - so the return of a favor is necessary to restore self-esteem and social rank, which is again something that is very valuable.)

In combination, these factors produce a heavy psychological cost - so it makes sense that we are willing to give back more than we received because we are not considering the value of what was given, but the emotional and social burden of being in a position in which we are indebted to another.

Side Effects

There are a couple of side effects to the reciprocity rule.

First, people will avoid asking for a favor, even when they are in need, as a method to avoid being indebted to others because the psychological cost of indebtedness will outweigh the value of someone else doing us a favor. He obliquely mentions a study conducted at the University of Pittsburg that demonstrated this, but provides no detail about the experiment other than this finding.

Second, people will often decline certain gifts and benefits even if they are offered for fear of being placed in a situation of obligation. This is very common among women, who do not wish to obligate themselves sexually to men who offer them a gift - the practice of buying a drink for a woman in a bar is well known, and such a common tactic that women have the sense that accepting the offer is an indication of sexual availability.

Reciprocal Concessions

The process of negotiation an agreement or exchange, such as making a business deal, can be viewed as an exchange of ritual concessions: each party starts with a price, and then does the other party the favor of incrementing their offer closer to the other person's position in order to give the other incentive to return the favor by making an incremental adjustment closer to theirs.

Another common practice that is similar is offer switching: a person asks a favor that has a high cost, and then asks that since the other person is unwilling to do them that favor, perhaps they will do them a smaller one - when the second favor is what they wanted in the first place.

The example he gives is of a fundraiser who first asked hum to buy a five-dollar ticket to an event he didn't want to attend, and then said that if he didn't want to buy a ticket, perhaps he would at least purchase a chocolate bar for a dollar - and he purchased two.

He immediately recognized that he had been swindled: he doesn't care for candy and recognized it was overpriced, but he bought two bars anyway. Why did he do so? He reckons it is because his refusal of the first request placed him in an awkward position socially of having refused to grant a requested favor (or to render assistance to someone who asks), which is another social taboo.

Returning to the notion of concessions: we see a concession itself as a kind of favor - that a person who makes an unwanted offer is doing something for us by adjusting the offer in our favor, even if it is something we do not want at all. Because they have offered to make a sacrifice for us, we are more inclined to make a sacrifice for them - even if all they did was offer.

There is also the social pressure of avoiding doing harm to others, or making amends for any harm we have done. Simply being rejected is painful, and because we caused them pain by rejecting their first offer we feel obliged to make amends by accepting the second one.

He speaks in detail of an experiment he conducted on a college campus, in which he approached students with a request for a large favor - to devote two hours a week to counseling juvenile delinquents - then a request for a smaller one - to spend an afternoon chaperoning the same delinquents on a trip to the zoo. Even the smaller request is fairly significant: giving up an unspecified amount of time, taking personal responsibility for dealing with difficult children, and all without personal reward.

He considers the tactic of negotiators who being with a ludicrous opening offer and then retreat by small steps to a less outrageous set of demands - and it is plain that the opening position was not something they expected to actually receive. He suggests that the more outrageous the initial request, the more negotiating room they have to pull the other party in their direction.

(EN: More recent experiments in auction situations indicated that by naming a higher value before starting an auction results in higher bids. It's also shown that simply stating or showing a person a high number, with no connection to the deal, can also cause them to bid higher.)

He does mention that the tactic can backfire: the initial request is so extreme that the other party is unwilling to negotiate at all, and immediately recognizes that the first party is not bargaining "in good faith" and sees them as a disreputable person who does not deserve common social courtesies.

(EN: Hence the advice to negotiators to simply balk at the first offer: to not reply at all as a means of suggesting it was an insult, and obligating the other party to adjust their opening position to something more reasonable.)

In another example, he mentions a television producer who, dealing with network censors, would insert things into a script that he felt the censor was certain to demand their removal - and by so doing, the censor would be less likely to fixate on milder offenses, and let them pass.

Another common sales tactic is to mention that someone else referred the salesman to a prospect. The mechanics of this will be discussed in chapter five, but for the present, consider the way that salesmen build this list of leads: when a prospect refuses their offer, the salesman will ask for the names of others who might be interested - and giving up this list of names is a concession for having refused the offer.

He returns to the contrast principle discussed in chapter one, suggesting that the rejection-concession pattern also leverages this tendency. That is, a person offered a quality item and then shown a lesser quality one and a slightly lower price is more likely to see the price of the quality item as being more reasonable by comparison. Likewise, the rejection-concession pattern makes a small favor seem more reasonable by comparison to a large one. The combination of the two tactics is powerful.

Back to the commercial world, the high-low pricing strategy is based on the psychology of reciprocation: the "regular price" is a ruse that allows a seller to make a concession of lowering the price, which makes buyers more amenable. It's not merely that they have the perception of getting a better deal, but the perception that the seller is doing them a favor by lowering the price that causes them to do the favor of buying the item.

Commitment and Longevity of Compliance

Not only does the rejection-concession pattern result in higher consent, but it also results in higher compliance. A study "published in Canada" (no further details) dealt wit ha charity that asked people to volunteer to work at a community mental-health agency, and what was found that only about half of people who agreed to do so actually turned up to do the work. When the solicitors began by making a larger request (volunteering for ongoing work), then asked for just one afternoon's commitment, the show-up rate increased to 85%.

Another ethnography mentions the success of this tactic in securing ongoing commitments: students who had been suckered into giving blood by a rejection-concession scheme were willing to agree to give their phone number to be called for future donations 84% of the time - whereas students who consented to a single request only agreed to do so 43% of the time.

So ultimately, the rejection-concession pattern not only works, it gains commitment and lays the ground for future requests.

Cialdini reckons there are a number of factors at work: first, there is a greater sense of commitment to an offer after having refused a different one. Second, people wish to feel that they made the right choices so strongly that the will do something multiple times, just to prove to themselves that they had made a good decision in the first place.

Negotiation and Control

The author mentions a negotiation experiment in the psychology department of UCLA: two people (one the subject, another an actor) would be offered a certain amount of money for participating in the study - but they would need to negotiate about how to split it. And to give them urgency, they indicated that if they failed to come to a mutual agreement by a set time, neither of them would get anything.

The actors in this experiment were instructed to bargain in one of three ways, no matter what the other person did:

  1. To make an extremely unfair demand and refuse to budge at all
  2. To make a moderately unfavorable demand and refuse to budge
  3. To make an extreme demand and gradually retreat to the moderate one

For reasons already discussed, the third tactic was the most effective in getting the subject to agree to an unfavorable deal - but there were a few other interesting findings.

First, the subjects who were able to negotiate with an unreasonable person expressed greater satisfaction in the deal because they felt that they had more control. The "take-it-or-leave-it" offers were seen as obnoxious and offensive, and when the offer was extremely unfair the subject would refuse to negotiate at all - accepting that they would get nothing, but taking greater satisfaction in "punishing" the other player for being so unfair.

Also, while the actors who decreased their demand were instructed to do so no matter what the other person did, the subjects expressed that they had been responsible for making the other person lower their offer, which gave them a sense of power and control in a situation in which they really had none at all. Some even claimed credit for coming up with the arrangement and making the actor agree to their terms.

Ultimately, this sense of control gives people better satisfaction with an arrangement - and Cialdini suggest that this is also the reason that people are more likely to agree to further dealings with another party.

Real-World Examples

The author mentions a company that installed fire alarm systems would call upon prospects, pretending to be a member of a nonprofit organization that sounded vaguely it was associated with the local fire department, with an offer for a "free" home inspection and a gift of a small fire extinguisher. The inspection served the purpose of stirring up fears about their own vulnerability and the "gift" was to make them more inclined to accept a request to install an expensive alarm system in their home.

This trick was backed with a cascade of concessions: the first approach was to sell a very expensive heat-triggered alarm system, the second to sell a slightly less expensive smoke-triggered system, and finally to gather a list of leads who might be interested in the "free" inspection service.

Another example is given in the confession of a sales clerk who worked at a major electronics retail chain, who was under pressure from the company to push warranty and service contracts. He admits to using the tactic of concessions - while other clerks in his department ad a 40% success rate by attempting to sell the cheapest plan, he achieved a 70% success rate by suggesting the most expensive one, then backing off to the cheaper plan when people refused. Moreover, he remarked that his customers seemed more satisfied with the purchase than did those of his colleagues.

How To Say No

An assailant who employs the reciprocation tactics can be a formidable foe: refusing the favor he does for you unsolicited is socially inacceptable, and refusing a favor asked in return is even more so. It seems that you are stuck in a no-win situation.

However, you should recognize that the person who leverages this tactic isn't your real opponent - the real opponent is your own feelings about social obligation. There is no reason that you should have to accept an unsolicited favor; and there is also no reason you should be obligated to do something that someone else wants because they have done something that you do not want. Once you accept this, you have diffused the power of reciprocation.

One tactic is simply to avoid people whom you suspect to be utilizing this practice. It is for this reason that people who are walking though an airport will move well to the side when they see a group of Hare Krishna solicitors at work: they know the deal, and prefer to avoid it entirely.

Another tactic is to refuse the person's unsolicited favor to us. Cialdini admits that this works better in theory than in practice, because a person who means to manipulate others in this way has a back-up plan to make them accept and express appreciation for their "gift." Moreover, you may be seen as antisocial by anyone who observes your refusal and does not recognize the reason for it.

Another solution is to accept their favor at face value and thank them for it, but when they make their request, call attention to the fact that the favor they had done was a "trick" to get you to do what they wanted. Here, social convention shifts to your favor, as the notion of "tricking" someone is not socially supported - and chances are that many people recognize they have been taken in, so their consternation is not with you, but with the person who used the ploy as an attempt to be deceitful.

Back to the earlier point: the important thing is to get your mind right. If you are prone to feeling regret for causing others social awkwardness, recognize that people who use these tactics are not "normal" people in happenstance social interactions, but manipulators who are intent on using your kindness against you - and as such you should feel justified in handling them with just as little care and respect as they have for you.