The Psychology of Persuasion: How to Improve Your Marketing Efforts (Part 2 of 7 - Reciprocation)

Updated: June 06, 2011

Uninvited Debts

Studies have shown that the reciprocity rule is so powerful that we are more likely to comply with requests from people we might ordinarily dislike (unwelcome salespeople, disagreeable acquaintances, representatives of unpopular organizations) if they merely do us a small favor prior to making their requests.

These studies underscore an important aspect of this rule -- anyone can trigger a feeling of indebtedness by doing us an uninvited favor. The rule of reciprocation does not require us to ask for anything we have received in order for us to feel obligated to repay. We might feel a stronger sense of obligation to return a favor we have requested, but we still feel indebted to people who give us things we do not ask for. How many times have you felt the twinge of obligation whenever you receive a "gift" from a nonprofit organization asking for a contribution?

Given the natural cultural forces favoring reciprocation arrangements in our societies, there is not only an obligation to repay, but also an obligation to receive. This obligation to receive, which intrinsically serves a social purpose, makes the reciprocity rule easy to exploit because such an obligation essentially eliminates our ability to choose whom we wish to be indebted to.

More often than not, we yield to the social pressures of the deeply ingrained reciprocity rule and feel obligated to accept an uninvited gift or favor and then feel indebted to the donor.

Unfair Exchanges

Established to promote equal exchanges between partners, the reciprocity rule demands that a gift or favor is to be reciprocated with a similar gift or favor. Unfortunately, this rule can easily be exploited for profit by unscrupulous individuals. People can easily be manipulated into an unfair exchange and agree to returning a favor that is substantially larger than the indebting first favor.

Why do small gifts or favors from others often stimulate larger return gifts or favors? The answer to this question is simple: because we typically feel uncomfortable when we are indebted to others, and we feel shame if we do not make a reasonable attempt to reciprocate.

Reciprocal arrangements are extremely vital for the functioning of our social systems. We are conditioned from birth to feel discomfort when we owe something to someone. If we didn't feel this way, and we did not feel the need to return gifts and favors, then reciprocal relationships and exchanges would stop dead in their tracks. Since this is not in the best interest of society, we are trained to feel beholden to benefactors. In addition, individuals who do not conform to the dictates of the reciprocity rule are usually disliked by their social groups.

Thus, we are often willing to return a larger favor than we received simply to relieve ourselves of this psychological burden of debt and to avoid being called a "moocher," "welsher," or "ingrate."

It's no wonder, then, that we typically avoid asking for a needed favor if we are not in a position to repay it in the future. And it's totally understandable why we often decline certain gifts or favors if we know we will feel uncomfortable accepting them (e.g., an expensive gift, a drink from a stranger at a bar).

Reciprocal Concessions

The straightforward way to employ the reciprocity rule is to provide someone with a gift or favor and then ask for one in return. The rule dictates that we repay gifts and favors we have received.

There is a subtle, indirect route, however, to achieve the same results. Let's say that a Girl Scout asked you to buy a raffle ticket for ten dollars but you declined because you didn't want to spend that much money. Then suppose you were asked to buy a chocolate bar for two dollars. It's highly likely that you would buy the chocolate bar, even if you didn't like chocolate. Why would you do that?

One of the consequences of the rule of reciprocation is the feeling of obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us. Buy you might argue, "There was no concession on the part of the Girl Scout to begin with!"

Actually, the Girl Scout's request that you buy the chocolate bar was a bone fide concession because it was presented as a retreat from the request to buy the ten-dollar raffle ticket. The reciprocation rule requires that one concession be reciprocated with another concession. The tendency to reciprocate a concession may not be so strong as to work in all situations with all people, but we all feel the tug of reciprocal concession nevertheless.

Members in society are expected to work together toward the achievement of common goals. Conventions, like mutual concession, are put in place to promote compromise whenever incompatible desires exist. The obligation to reciprocate a concession encourages socially desirable arrangements by ensuring that individuals who initiate such arrangements are not exploited. If we weren't obligated to reciprocate a concession, then there would be no incentive to begin the compromise process.

The "Rejection-Then-Retreat" Technique

Since it appears that the rule for reciprocation governs the compromise process, an initial concession can be used as part of a "rejection-then-retreat" technique that can be highly successful in eliciting compliance.

One way of increasing your chances of getting someone to say "yes" to a request is to initially ask for more than you want. After the larger request is rejected, you "retreat" by making a smaller request, one that you were interested in to begin with. If your requests are structured skillfully, your second request would be viewed as a concession. The reciprocity rule should kick in at this point and the individual should respond with a concession, which would probably be compliance with your second (smaller) request.

A number of psychological experiments have been designed to determine if the rejection-then-retreat technique could be used with genuinely sizable requests. The question posed by these experiments was: "Does the smaller request to which a requester retreats have to be a small request for the technique to work effectively?"

The findings from these experiments indicated that compliance to a request is more likely if the requester's retreat from a larger to smaller favor appear to be a concession. In other words, the second request can be one that is objectively large, as long as it is smaller than the first request.

The results also suggested that the larger the initial request, the more effective the compliance technique, since there is more room available for making concessions. The tactic backfires, however, if the first request is viewed as unreasonable, since retreats from unrealistic initial requests are not considered as genuine concessions, and subsequently are not reciprocated.

The Compliance Cycle

At this point you might be thinking that there must be a drawback to using the rejection-then-retreat technique. Don't people resent being manipulated into compliance? Because of this resentment, wouldn't people refuse to live up to any verbal agreement? And if they actually did follow through with what they originally agreed to, wouldn't people simply refuse to deal with the manipulative requester again out of distrust?

Strangely enough, research indicates that these types of negative reactions are less likely to occur when the rejection-then-retreat technique is used. The evidence suggests that this compliance strategy gets people to agree to a desired request, to carry out the request, AND surprisingly to agree to additional requests. So why are people who are duped into compliance so willing to continue to comply?

We already know that the reciprocity rule states that a concession will probably stimulate a return concession, as long as the requester's initial request is not unreasonable or is considered a manipulative ploy. But we haven't examined other findings unearthed by research studies, which show that there are two positive by-products of the act of concession.

When people concede in response to an initial concession made by someone attempting to elicit compliance to a request, they tend to feel both responsible and satisfied with the arrangement that has been made. These feelings of responsibility and satisfaction motivate individuals to engage in further agreements. In other words, once an individual has agreed to do something, he/she is likely to continue to agree to do other things.

Psychological experiments clearly have demonstrated that a requester's concessions during negotiations causes individuals to feel responsible for "dictating" the final agreement. It's understandable, then, that people will be more likely to follow through with an agreement if they feel responsible for the terms of the contract.

The experimental evidence also indicates that agreements that have come about through concessions (i.e., during negotiations) are quite satisfying. When concessions are used to bring about compliance, people are likely to feel satisfied with the final arrangements of a deal. It stands to reason that this feeling of satisfaction increases the chances of individuals agreeing to other such arrangements in the future.

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