Principles of Influence 2: Reciprocity

Dallas McMillan Influence

You’ve probably heard the expression “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. The concept of giving is central to most social, religious and ethical philosophies. Far from being altruistic, however, Robert Cialdini, points out that giving is the best way to influence others to give to you.

Giving and reciprocity are part of human nature

“The tendency among humans is that we want to give back to those who have given to us,” says Cialdini, the author of “Influence: Science and Practice” and a renowned expert on persuasion. This tendency toward reciprocity is one of the six universal principles of influence.

Now Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and Distinguished Professor of Marketing in the W. P. Carey School, Cialdini has spent much of his career closely examining what he calls the “persuasion professions”: marketing, sales and other vocations that rely on getting people to do what you want. But reciprocity and influence aren’t confined to silver-tongued salesmen:

“This is not just universal to the influence professions that I examined,”says Cialdini . “This is a tendency that is universal throughout all of the cultures of the world.”

In his decades studying persuasion and influence Cialdini has tested how poeple respond to influence both in controlled laboratory settings. His studies clearly point to the idea that the capacity to influence isn’t accidental or good luck, but rather results from a predictable set of behaviors and human responses.

This isn’t all academic though, Cialdini has spent much of his research undercover working in the field with professional influencers – sales and advertising executives, recruiters, fundraisers, political lobbyists and cult leaders – to improve science’s understanding of influence and human behavior.

From his clinical and practical research Cialdini has distilled that art and science of successful persuasion down to six basic principles, each of which relies on a specific, distinct psychological response among those being influenced. By teasing out these principles and applying them Cialdini says that we can both improve our own persuasion skills and become more aware of when others are trying to influence us.

Small gestures, big returns


Just as the “liking” principle plays on basic human emotions, so too does the “reciprocity” principle. That’s why it’s so powerful.


“We as humans have very nasty names for people who take without giving back in return,” Cialdini explains. “We call them ‘moochers.’ We call them ‘ingrates.’ So generally speaking, we will go to great lengths to give back once we’ve received.”


Sometimes, even a small gesture — a holiday greeting card, a phone call, a simple favor — can go a long way to establishing a long, profitable relationship.


Take the example of the Disabled American Veterans. For years, the DAV had sent a basic form letter to potential donors, asking for their support. With that run-of-the-mill letter, the DAV had enjoyed an 18 percent response rate — not bad, really.


But the DAV hoped for better. Seizing on the principle of reciprocity, the charity made a brilliant strategic decision.


One year, instead of sending that tired form letter alone, the DAV also included in their donor package a small gift: Personalized address labels.


As a result, the response rate jumped to 35 percent.


“There’s not a single human society that does not teach its children the rule of reciprocity — the idea that you must not take without then giving in return,” explains Cialdini.


The reciprocity principle is so powerful, in fact, it even swayed the opinion — and actions — of Cialdini, who as a persuasion expert should be immune to these tricks.


It all started when Cialdini, making his first stay at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, sat down at his room’s writing table. There was nothing particularly special about either the room or the desk, Cialdini remembers.


It was what he found in the desk drawer that surprised him.


“When you go to a great hotel, sometimes you’ll look in the desk drawer and you’ll see some really nice, high-quality stationary, with the hotel’s name in gold leaf across the top,” Cialdini says. “But when I was at the Mandarin Oriental, I pulled out this stationary and my name was at the top. They had given me a gift that wasn’t designed to promote the hotel. It didn’t have their name on it — it had my name on it. I’ve never stopped recommending that hotel to anyone traveling to Hong Kong.”



With a very small investment in personalized stationary, the hotel has reaped the rewards of word-of-mouth business ever since.


“It was a tailored, personalized gift, Cialdini says. “That’s the key: Many companies will give their customers pens and calendars and other things with the company name on them. But you know what? That’s the wrong name. Our customers’ names, not ours, belong on what we give them.”



A leap of faith?


Cialdini says the applications for reciprocity in the real world are numerous.
A businessperson entering into a new partnership, for example, would be wise to step back and take a wide-angle look at the organization he wishes to work with. Then, he should pinpoint the person or people he can help — and make sure to do so.


“When you go into a new situation, the first question you should ask is not actually the first question we were trained to ask in all of these programs we infiltrated,” Cialdini says. “We were taught to ask ourselves, ‘Who can help me here?’ But the first question you should really ask is, ‘Whom can I help here?'”


Another way to impress potential clients or establish new business relationships, he says, would be to send personalized holiday gifts. To make those gifts more memorable, however, try sending them in October.


“If what you give to somebody is meaningful, tailored and unexpected, that’s really the best you can do,” Cialdini says. “All the evidence shows you will be repaid.”


There are applications inside organizations, too. If you’re a manager and see a colleague struggling with staff shortages, try lending her one of your staffers. Doing so not only helps a friend in need (and your company) but may insure you against similar problems in the future. More likely than not, if the time comes when you’re short-staffed, your colleague will reciprocate in kind.


“Because once you’ve benefited somebody, and once you’ve helped elevate their outcomes, that person will feel honor-bound to benefit you, and help your outcomes in return,” Cialdini says.


Using reciprocity is not complicated, Cialdini says.


All it takes is a little foresight — and the willingness to help others before they help you. In the sometimes-cutthroat world of modern business, that may seem to be a leap of faith.


But Cialdini is convinced it’s one that will pay off.


“It may not happen the next day,” Cialdini says. “But you’ve basically put money in the bank.”


Next: Social proof



Bottom Line:


  • Human beings are programmed to help those who have helped them.
  • In the world of business, a small favor to a colleague in need can serve as a long-term investment. According to the principle of reciprocity, a good deed will be repaid eventually.
  • Companies can impress customers through reciprocity by offering gifts that are personalized, meaningful and unexpected, which makes them memorable.

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