What Reciprocity Is and What It Is Not

We’re knee deep in the holiday season, the traditional time of gift giving in many parts of the world. There is also quite a bit of reciprocation that happens during this season. I write that because quite often we give gifts to other people because we know they will be giving us a gift. God forbid we aren’t ready to exchange gifts because most people feel awkward when they receive a gift but don’t have something to give in return. To avoid that feeling have you ever run out to buy a gift or holiday card from someone and quickly stuck it in the mail because they gave you a card or gift first? That’s reciprocity working its magic on you.

The principle of influence known as reciprocity defines human behavior that’s been around as long as mankind: we feel obligated to give back to those who first give to us. We’ve been conditioned to give in return because over the course of evolution we learned we are all better off when we help those who’ve helped us first

I’m sure every person reading this understands the principle of reciprocity and my definition only serves to make them think, “I already know that.” What most people don’t really understand is how to engage the principle because all too often I read articles and blog posts from marketers, sales trainers, and others who like to cite Robert Cialdini’s work…but do so incorrectly!

I recently read a blog post on getting consumers to say yes using reciprocity and two examples were used:

“But 4 get 1 free”

“Free gift/shipping when purchase for $60 or more”

Neither example is an application of the principle of reciprocity. Do you know why?

As noted earlier, reciprocity is engaged when you’ve given to someone or done something for another person first.

That feeling of indebtedness makes the other person want to “return the favor” so to speak. Neither example used in the article I cited above did anything for the consumer or gave them anything in advance. In each case what they were actually offering was a reward. Rewards are predicated on an, “If you…, I will…” basis. Both of the above examples were actually rewards that could read:

“If you buy four you’ll get one more for free.”

“If you buy $60 or more in goods your shipping will be free.”

Think about it for a moment. You can’t get “one more for free” or “free shipping” unless you do something first.

Make no mistake about it; rewards motivate behavior. There are decades of studies to back that up and it’s a fact that rewards are more effective than the threat of punishment.

The word “free” is a big motivator too. Dan Ariely brilliantly points that out in a chapter from Predictably Irrational called “The Cost of Zero Cost: We Often Pay Too Much When We Pay Nothing.” All too often we’ll go out of our way to get something free. For example, have you ever purchased extra items on Amazon so you’d spend enough to get free shipping? People spend a lot more money to get “free” stuff!

Rewards change behavior but some studies show you can engage people with reciprocity by giving a much smaller gift in lieu of a large reward and get a better result. In workshops I often share a study in which owners of a construction company were either offered a $50 reward for completing a survey or given a $5 check up front in consideration of their time. Only 23% who were offered the $50 reward completed the survey but 52% who received the $5 check up front did so. And the savings was anywhere from 57% to 77% depending on how many ultimately cashed the $5 check.

As a business owner, if you knew you could more than double your response rate and save 50%, 60%, 70% or more by going the reciprocity option instead of the traditional reward route, wouldn’t you choose the reciprocity option? Of course you would…and now you will going forward.

I don’t point this out to be nit picky or combative. Rather, I point this out because when I teach people about persuasion I tell them, “If you use the principles ethically and correctly you will get more people saying yes to you.” If people think they’re using principles correctly but they’re not, then they won’t see the results they hoped for. That leads to people thinking, “It sounds good when Brian says it, or when Dr. Cialdini writes about it, but it doesn’t’ work in the real world.” It does work but only if you do it the right way.

Here’s my final thought – if you want to engage people in a low cost, easy to implement, sure fire way to motivate the behavior you want, save yourself time and money by going the reciprocity route in lieu of using traditional rewards.

2 replies
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