How to Be More Persuasive Part 2: Reciprocity

free address labels

Influence is a book about how to be more persuasive, written by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., who admits in the introduction that he wanted to research how and why he became such a patsy. “For as long as I can recall,” he writes, “I’ve been an easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fundraisers and operators of one sort or another.”

Cialdini dedicates his book to deconstructing what makes language persuasive, and it comes down to efficiency. We crave simplicity, because the world is increasingly complex. Thinking through every stimulus we encounter in a given day would be impossible. Our brain tries to be as efficient as possible when performing tasks, which makes us masters of shortcut thinking and intuitive understanding. (This is a cool example of the shortcuts your brain can take.) We excel at anticipating what will come next, and that means that we’re also pretty easy to fool.

Not all persuasive behavior is intended to fool us, of course.  Just the best stuff. You may think you’re a completely rational being. All brain; facts and figures are the only things that can persuade you.  Good luck with that. Science tells us differently. Cialdini breaks down why simple techniques trigger automatic responses and make us very likely to buy, or do, things we might not if we thought about it consciously.

In my previous post, I explained how simply giving a reason, no matter how simple or obvious, compels people to comply. Another ridiculously simple technique is Reciprocity. We’re hardwired to see any gift or gesture, no matter how small, as an obligation. The roots of this behavior are very ancient; humans could only guarantee survival by belonging to a social group. Remaining in the group, especially for vulnerable or young members, was a life or death matter.  Cooperative behavior, including returning favors, was an essential skill. Members who took and never gave back risked being ejected from the group. (We still despise “takers” today, even when the stakes aren’t life or death.)

So when someone offers you anything, no matter how small, you feel a strong, primal need to reciprocate. To rid yourself of being in debt by repaying a favor as soon as possible. Cialdini writes, “By virtue of the reciprocity rule, then, we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like.”

Cialdini observed this in action in the Hare Krishna groups who roamed the airports and other public places in groups in the 1970s.  They gave out a book or a tired, faded daisy, something that most people didn’t want to accept. But the gentle Hare Krishna members would press it on recipients, then gently ask for a donation. That small token made people feel indebted, even when they knew the ploy. People gave money, no matter how they felt about the movement and even when they threw away the token immediately after the interaction. The movement raised millions using reciprocity in a simple and brilliant way.

That’s why today, you receive free address labels, pens, even dollar bills in packages asking for your time, your money, or your attention. Even when you know it’s coming, reciprocity works. There’s even another version of this effect, sometimes called the Ben Franklin Effect. Franklin theorized that you become more fond of a person after you have done them a good turn, rationalizing the unnecessary effort you expended. Likewise, the theory goes, you may come to dislike someone you’ve harmed. It’s another way our brains fool us into thinking we’re rational and in charge.

Next: Contrast as persuasion.



2 thoughts on “How to Be More Persuasive Part 2: Reciprocity

  1. […] who admits in the introduction that he wanted to research how and why he became such a patsy. My previous post  and this one showed you some tricks for becoming more persuasive. Today I’ll add one […]


  2. […] the introduction that he wanted to research how and why he became such a patsy. My previous post, this one, and this one showed you some tricks for becoming more persuasive. Today I’ll add a few […]


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