Cialdini: Reciprocation

This is the third in a series of posts on Bob Cialdini’s seminal book “Influence”. In the book, Bob describes six categories of emotional reactions that trigger automatic thinking. Things that get us to act without thinking.

The first of these emotional reactions is a reflect to reciprocation. The general idea is that we try to repay in kind what another has provided for us. And it is a universal reaction to receiving something that perhaps dates back to the earliest days of humanity, when learning to share bound together the tribe. Society has much to gain when its members observe the rule.

While we do not think of reciprocity very much, research indicates that its effect is overpowering. It does not matter whether the recipient of a favor likes the person who gave it, they will tend to reciprocate.  So, people give donations when they receive a flower or a candy cane, even from a person they know is from a pesky religious sect like the hare krishnas.

A key aspect of the power of reciprocity is that the person tends to feel an obligation to reciprocate even if he or she has not asked for the initial gift. In other words, the cultural bias is for us to feel an obligation to receive gifts. And that obligation may be manipulated by the giver to create unfair exchanges. The value of the pay back far exceeds the value of the original gift. Why? Refusing to give back produces both internal discomfort and the risk of external shame.

The reciprocity rule can be triggered as well when someone offers you a concession. They ask you to do X and you say no. They then say, ok, but if not x, then how about Y (a smaller favor). having rejected the first offer, it takes more will to reject the concession offer. It is a “rejection then retreat” tactic.  BTW, it works also because the smaller second favor looks much smaller compared to the initial request due to the contrast principle (see last post).

This is a powerful negotiation tactic. Starting with an extreme demand and then backing down from it produces more “buy in” from the other side as well as satisfaction that they produced the concession.

How to fight against this? You can refuse the initial offer, though this can have negative social consequences. Or you can perform a bit of mental gymnastics – see the initial offer for what it is. It is not a gift. It is a sales tactic.

Next – commitment and consistency!


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