Principle #1: Reciprocity

16.03.2017 |

Episode #2 of the course Persuasion science masterclass: part I by Andy Luttrell


The first principle of influence to know is “reciprocity.” Maybe you’ve had the experience where someone gives you a gift unexpectedly. What do you do? Well, you turn around and figure out a way to pay them back somehow. You rush out to the store and get them a gift, or you go to your basement and dig up something that was a gift from a long time ago, and you think, “this will do!”

The point is that you feel as though there’s a pressure to return the favor. You’ve probably heard the phrase “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” It suggests that we are motivated to reciprocate things that are done for us, and this social rule applies to influence.

The “Social Rule”: If someone does you a favor, you pay them back.

The Principle of Influence: You can gain compliance by first giving something yourself.

One of my favorite studies of reciprocity is a study pertaining to Christmas cards (Kunz & Woolcot, 1976). Researchers randomly selected names and addresses from a city directory and sent Christmas cards to those random strangers. What would you do if you got a Christmas card from someone you didn’t know? You put them on your list for next year! And that’s exactly what these researchers discovered. The next year, these researchers received a whole bunch of Christmas cards from total strangers, but they were the strangers that they sent Christmas cards to just one year before. This just highlights the fact that there’s an implicit rule that when someone does something for you, you are compelled and expected to return that favor—to reciprocate what that person did.

There are a number of specific influence techniques that use the reciprocity principle, and we’ll discover those over the next few days. One technique is “pre-giving,” which involves giving a physical gift as a way to secure compliance later. Another is the “that’s not all” technique, which will remind you of famous infomercials that offer seemingly generous discounts and special opportunities. In that case, the gift isn’t an actual, physical gift but is instead a more abstract one.

Finally, we’ll discover the “Door-in-the-Face” technique, which is yet another way to use an abstract “gift” as an influence strategy. All three of these are built upon the principle of reciprocity, and they go back to this core motivation that we have as humans to respond and reciprocate and pay back people for the good things they do for us. We’ll see how we can use that as a strategy in the next few lectures in this section.


Recommended book

“Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition” by Robert B. Cialdini


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