Much Obliged: The Power of Reciprocity

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What do you think would happen if you sent out a large batch of Christmas cards early in the month of December — to complete strangers? Nothing? Maybe a few confused phone calls or letters?

Nope. Most likely you would receive an avalanche of Christmas cards in return, from people who don’t even know you.

A university professor actually performed this exact experiment, and the results were published in Social Science Research back in 1976. Although the professor predicted he would get some responses, he was actually amazed by the number of return cards he received.

The Give and Take

The experiment demonstrates the powerful cultural force known as reciprocity. Sociologists maintain that all human societies subscribe to the principle that we are obligated to repay favors, gifts, and invitations. It makes sense, really; reciprocity is at the root of what makes us human, and has allowed us to adapt and progress from early primitive tribes to a complex global economy.

Reciprocity is so powerful that it can result in exchanges of completely unequal value. In the 1970s, the Hare Krishna Society performed public fundraising in places such as airports in the United States. Until people became desensitized to the tactic, the Krishna offered a simple pamphlet or flower in exchange for a donation. Even though most Americans thought the Krishnas were “weird” at best, the reciprocation tactic resulted in spectacular growth for the Society in terms of wealth and property.

Reciprocity is the reason your waiter leaves a mint along with your dinner check, and why you receive free gifts or dollar bills via direct mail.

Rejection Then Retreat

The rule of reciprocity is also the root of a classic negotiation strategy. Called the Rejection-Then-Retreat tactic, you start by making a request (or offer) that you know will likely never be accepted. Once rejected, you make a more reasonable request or offer, and your concession sparks a return concession, either in the form of approval or perhaps a price reduction, say, off the list price of a home.

Here’s a classic example from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes:

Calvin: Mom, can I set fire to my mattress?
No, Calvin.
Can I ride my tricycle on the roof?
No, Calvin.
Then can I have a cookie?
No, Calvin.
She’s on to me.

Sales anecdotes show that presenting a customer with the most expensive option first will actually raise your average sale per customer. This is in direct contravention of the old “bait and switch” tactic of advertising a low price and then up-selling the customer.

The lesson? Try offering your Rolls Royce product or service option first.

The Give, Give, Give

In sales circles, reciprocity is often employed as the Give and Take, Take, Take strategy, due to our propensity to continue complying with requests even after only one initial favor from the salesperson.

Truly successful businesses know better. To rephrase marketing guru Jay Abraham’s strategy of pre-eminence, you should give, give, give, and your profits will explode.

When blogging, you’re giving quite a bit with the free information you provide your readers. In this sense, having a blog as part of your marketing strategy is crucial from a basic reciprocity standpoint. But whether you’re hoping to make a sale, or to create something that attracts links from other bloggers, it’s smart to go above and beyond the baseline.

Blogging is hard work, but in reality it’s just the ticket to a seat at the table with today’s demanding consumers. Give even more by creating tutorials, e-books and special promotions that add real value for your readers. Continually strive to give, give, give, and reciprocity will reward you in spades.

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Reader Comments (32)

  1. Chris Bhurrut says

    Agree. Also, by giving you create trust. It’s much easy to sell to someone who trusts you.

    Great article. Great blog. Love your style of writing. Good stuff.


  2. Tyler says

    People act differently under the shield of their computer screens. I would like to see data on how the reciprocity principle works in cyberspace. People may feel perfectly comfortable take, take, taking all of your free information because they do not personally feel the pressure to reciprocate as they would if you were interacting in real life.

  3. says

    Offering the most expensive version first is part of Price Conditioning. It’s done in clothing stores all the time. After recovering from the intentional sticker shock of the top of the line item, those mid-price ones will seem like a screaming bargain by comparison.

    Remember that next time you go buy a suit…

    Joe :)

  4. says

    Love this! Have you read Cialdini’s book by chance? The same example was used to explain the phenomena.

    @Tyler there are actually studies being done to see if their are differences in people’s behavior in relation to face-to-face and online. If interested look for research on Computer-mediated-communication or if you have any specific questions feel free to twitter me: @cjow

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