Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

The return of the favour

November 25th, 2010

Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable you feel if someone does you a favour and you can’t do anything in return? It’s even worse if they do you several favours. It’s like a moral itch that you can’t scratch.

This effect has been called the “reciprocity principle” or the “norm of reciprocity” and it can be incredibly powerful, as some fascinating studies have shown.

One of the earliest was done in 1971 by Dennis Regan. During a two-person experiment at an art exhibition, one participant (who was actually a stooge for Regan) left the room to get a soft drink. Half the time, he returned with an extra drink for the real participant; half the time, he didn’t. A few minutes later, the stooge asked the real participant to buy some inexpensive raffle tickets, saying, “The thing is, if I sell the most tickets I get 50 bucks and I could use it… Any would help, the more the better.” The participants who had received a drink bought nearly twice as many tickets as those who hadn’t.

Cards !Another study – one of my favourites – was done in December 1974. Philip Kunz and Michael Woolcott sent Christmas cards to a random sampling of individuals picked out of a phone book – and more than 20% of the recipients sent a card or letter back to a total stranger.

It’s a commonly used ploy by salespeople: when they give us a free gift, we feel a self-imposed sense of obligation to return the favour. Most often, we eliminate the obligation by buying whatever they’re selling. Charities use it, too, sending free address labels or greeting cards along with their requests for donations.

I suspect that some of you are now thinking, I refuse to do this – I don’t want to be as manipulative as those guys. I empathize; it makes me a little uncomfortable, too. But as I wrote in my first why-am-I-here post, “Marketing is a huge industry and marketers examine every new psychological insight for potential use. Since these techniques are already being used to persuade us to buy things, why shouldn’t we also use them to make the world a better place?”

I still believe that. I also believe that as long as reciprocating remains a free choice (i.e., not asked in a situation where failure to reciprocate will make the favour recipient look bad to others), it’s okay. If a small freebie makes people more likely to read your materials at an information booth, I have no problem with that. Ditto if providing a free service makes people more likely to promote your organization by word of mouth. It works in negotiations, too: if one party makes a concession, the other party often feels obliged to make a concession in return.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. Recipients of a favour are more likely to feel a sense of reciprocity:

  • in a face-to-face environment
  • when the favour is small but thoughtful
  • when the requested return favour is not much greater than the original favour
  • when the favour-doer doesn’t have an apparent ulterior motive
  • when the requested return favour is asked immediately rather than later

I won’t end this post by pretending to use this technique on my readers, as I sometimes do. But I will point out (at the risk of looking really corny) that reciprocity works for smiles and kind words as well as gifts. Go say something nice to someone.

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