The Compelling Role of Reciprocation

At its core, a “weapon of influence” is a trigger. It stimulates a response that is truly compelling and one that we have difficulty ignoring.

The first “weapon of influence” is one that Cialdini refers to as reciprocation. You can see the concept of reciprocation being put into play every single day. Those address labels that accompany the letter requesting that you donate to a worthy cause… reciprocation, in this case, in the form of an uninvited debt. Gifts to politicians with the intention of receiving support later on…reciprocation. Even the free sample given by manufacturers with the intention of exposing someone to a product is still another form of – you guessed it – reciprocation. And it is core to the way we raise our children (i.e. the golden rule and if you want him to be nice to you, you have to treat him nicely)

The rule of reciprocation states that “we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided to us.” The need to reciprocate is a self-imposed obligation that we place on ourselves. You can even see it in our language as “much obliged” has become synonymous with “thank you.” In fact, this sense of obligation is pervasive in all human society.

In reading Cialdini’s work, I was frankly ambivalent. On the one hand, I was concerned that I was becoming wise to ways that I was being manipulated (or, dare I say, in fact, manipulating others). However, as I reflected more and more on the book, I realized that these influence factors are truly an engine for advancement and care.

Some sociologists note that this sense of future obligation has made a significant difference in our ability to evolve because it meant that what we shared, gave, or even taught, would not be lost. Reciprocation is the basis of trade, mutual defense and perhaps even friendship. Those who do not live by the rule of reciprocation are ultimately scorned (i.e moocher or ingrate). Reciprocation does indeed create a positive cultural norm.

The rule is also overpowering that it can even overcome dislike for the requester. Cialdini cites the Hare Krishna as truly understanding the rule. When they would solicit passerbys, they would not only offer a flower, but they would insist that the flower be accepted. They referred to it as “gift” and would not accept no for an answer. Fundraising was so successful that two important phenomena should be noted.

The first is that the passerbys often discarded the flower at the first available trash can. The Krishnas were thus able to recycle the gifts. There is also now a common practice in many airports to restrict solicitations to certain discrete areas simply because the power of obligation to accept a gift and to repay it is so overwhelming.

The reciprocation rule can also trigger unfair exchanges. Cialdini cites a woman whose car wouldn’t start. She was helped by a young man. About a month later, the young man asked to borrow the car, and while the woman hesitated, she felt compelled to lend him her car, even though she had misgivings about his age. Needless to say the young man totaled the car. The lesson though is that indebtedness and the need to reciprocate is an itch that we must scratch.

There are exceptions and they typically fall into the category of circumstance or ability. If circumstances or ability prevent us from reciprocating, we allow ourselves that latitude

The area that was particularly enlightening to me was the concept of reciprocal concession. This is a common tactic in negotiations where one party asks for something that would be deemed inappropriate simple so that the offer can be withdrawn and replaced by a less outrageous offer. The other party often feels a need to reciprocate to the concession and agrees to the new request.

To make this point, Cialdini draws on the testimony of Nixon associate Jeb Stuart Magruder, upon hearing that the Watergate burglars had been caught, responded by asking, “How could we have been so stupid?”

As the story goes, it seems that G. Gordon Liddy, who was in charge of the intelligence gathering for the Nixon campaign, had initially asked for $1,000,000 in cash for a wide range of activities. Magruder and Campaign Director John Mitchell kept declining the offer. Liddy kept scaling back the request until finally the rule of reciprocal concession kicked in and his request for $250,000 in cash for the break-in was approved.

As to more mundane examples, think of the salesman who shows you the top of the line product so that he can scale you back to sell you a more “affordable” item in the product line

Is there a way to say no? Cialdini suggests that one can say no if one adopts a mindset that recognizes the tactic for what is. This requires us to cognitively understand that reciprocation is a tactic and be present so that the tactic can be effectively managed.

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One Comment on “The Compelling Role of Reciprocation”


  1. […] of Cialdini’s “weapons,” and I wanted to be sure to feature their summary on Reciprocity, […]


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