The urge to take revenge can manifest in smallest of things. Someone cuts you off in the traffic and the first thought that comes to mind is to get back at him and settle the account. In fact, people getting shot dead in road rage incidents isn’t uncommon these days. So what could be the reason for this strong force, a need to reciprocate the wrongdoing, in human behaviour? Is it just the anger? Or is it the resentment for receiving an unfair treatment? And if humans can have such a strong need to reciprocate to an injustice, can they also have a similar need to reciprocate a favour?
Robert Cialdini, a professor of Psychology and author of wildly popular book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, has done extensive research on human behaviour. One of the human biases that he talks about in his book is Reciprocity Bias. According to Cialdini – the rule for reciprocation is one of the most potent weapons of influence around us.
The rule says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. We are obligated (not by some external force but an internal urge) to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like. This rule is deeply implanted in us by the process of socialization that homo sapiens has undergone over thousands of years.
Each one of us has been taught to live up to the rule, says Cialdini “and each of us knows about the social sanctions and derision applied to anyone who violates it.” So there is a strong social stigma attached to the act of not returning a favour. Not just that, the force of reciprocity is not only extremely strong but very subtle too.
One of the reasons reciprocation can be used so effectively as a device for gaining another’s compliance is its power. The rule possesses awesome strength, often producing a “yes” response to a request that, except for an existing feeling of indebtedness, would have surely been refused.
The rule of reciprocation is so strong that it simply overwhelms the influence of other normal factors that affect the decision making. This makes it a powerful weapon of influence. People who we usually dislike, including pushy salesmen, can make us acquiesce to their requests if they provide us a small (even unwanted) favour beforehand.
Remember those free samples in the supermarket cookie shop? Or those welcome beverages offered to you and your wife in a jewelry store? Well I am not debating your prowess for judging the quality of precious jewels but your jeweler knows something more. He knows how to play a mental jujitsu and subconsciously trigger the rule of reciprocation.
It’s fascinating how the rule of reciprocation can be deployed by some clever salespeople in an indirect way without actually doing any favour.
Cialdini dubs this flavour of reciprocity as rejection-then-retreat (RTR) technique. The idea is to first make a larger request, one that will most likely be rejected followed by retreating to a smaller request which you were really interested in all along.
Here’s an excerpt from Poor Charlie’s Almanack –
Wise employers, therefore, try to oppose reciprocate-favor tendencies of employees engaged in purchasing. The simplest antidote works best: Don’t let them accept any favors from vendors. Sam Walton [founder of Wal-Mart] agreed with this idea of absolute prohibition. He wouldn’t let purchasing agents accept so much as a hot dog from a vendor. Given the subconscious level at which much Reciprocation Tendency operates, this policy of Walton’s was profoundly correct.
Reciprocity, especially RTR, is an important negotiation tool. Labor negotiations often begin with extreme demands (to a reasonable limit) that they don’t actually expect to win but from which they can retreat in a series of seeming concessions designed to draw real concessions from the opposing side. Perhaps that gives an edge to the first mover in negotiations.
The first problem in countering the reciprocity bias is that you can’t know beforehand whether the offer is an honest or whether it is the initial step in an exploitation attempt. You might end up rejecting the legitimate favours coming from individuals who had no ulterior motives.
According to Cialdini:
As long as we perceive and define his [person offering a favor] action as a compliance device instead of a favor, he no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally.
If you find yourself in a possible reciprocity-situation with the realization that the primary motive is to sell you something, all you need is a mental act of redefinition. Look at the favour not as gift but as a sales device.
Here’s Charlie Munger’s suggestion to save yourself from this bias:
The standard antidote to one’s overactive hostility is to train oneself to defer reaction. As my smart friend Tom Murphy so frequently says, “You can always tell the man off tomorrow if it is such a good idea.”