Principles of Persuasion: Reciprocation

Principles of Persuasion: Reciprocation

In his book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, Robert Cialdini describes 6 principles of persuasion:

These principles can be used to nudge citizens into behaviours that are beneficial to them. This blog post will discuss the Reciprocation principle. 

An introduction to Reciprocation

Who has that friend who always leaves the bar without getting everyone a drink back? Why does this friend frustrate us so much?

They frustrate us because they don’t fulfil the rule of Reciprocation. They take but don’t give back. Reciprocation is the idea that we should repay, in kind, what another person has provided us (Cialdini, 2007). 

For example, in 1976, sociologists Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott sent 576 Christmas cards to a random set of people that they did not know. What they found surprised them. 20% of the 576 people reciprocated by sending a Christmas card back without questioning the sender’s identity (Kunz and Woolcott, 1976).  

How has it been used? 

The UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government highlight how the rule of reciprocity can be used, and likely is being used, by charitable organisations who offer a free gift before asking for a donation. 

The study asked 6175 individuals working in a bank in London to donate a day’s salary to charity. They found that having a human ask the person to donate rather than sending an email had no impact on the rate of donations. However, when they gave the individual a small gift, a packet of sweets, they noticed the donation rate increase by 7.5% (Sanders, 2015). 

How can it be used digitally?

A popular way for organisations to use the reciprocation principle is by giving free information. For example, whilst writing this blog post, I read Nielsen Norman Group’s post on reciprocation. They give away this information for free because they know that users are then more likely to reciprocate and purchase their services (Budiu, 2014). 

For the reciprocity principle to work, we need to be nice to our users upfront and create services that require minimal effort to complete. If this is done, our users will reciprocate in kind.  

What to be careful of

The examples offered in this blog have been of positive reciprocity. However, there is such a thing as negative reciprocity. This is when we intend to punish those who have been less than kind to us (Caliendo et al, 2010). 

The ultimatum bargaining experiment is a good way to illustrate this. This experiment involves two individuals and a sum of money. The first person has to divide the money between the two and the second person chooses whether to accept the division. Should they reject, neither individual will get any money. The experiment found that when the second person was offered less than 30% of the sum, they were highly likely to reject, acting against their self-interests to punish the other actor (Fehr and Gachter, 2000). 

Another discovery to be careful of is that the receiver’s perception of the giver’s motives impacts the likelihood of reciprocation (Falk and Fischbacher, 2006). For example, the Behavioural Insights Team’s bank worker experiment described above was repeated a year after, with the same people, the same packet of sweets, but a different charity and branding. This time, the donation rate increased only by 2%, a 5% drop from previously (Sanders, 2015). This is because the receiver will begin to see the gift as strategic rather than a selfless act. 

If looking to use Reciprocation to nudge, we need to make sure that our motives are not solely strategic and that we don’t mistakenly instigate negative reciprocity by not making that clear. 

How can this help Welsh local authorities?

Our research has shown that citizens get frustrated with their local authority when they have to contact them to get information about a service they have applied for. By being more proactive with our communications, we can make information available to citizens up front, so they don’t need to spend any effort. 

This will offer citizens a level of transparency over how their application progresses and likely make them feel like they need to reciprocate by spreading more positive feelings about their council. 

How do you think Reciprocation can help citizens? Let me know in the comments. 

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