Book: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini
Concept: Reciprocity

Robert Cialdini’s masterpiece, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, has been cited as “the book that appears most often on the reading list of elite performers like  CEOs and world leaders”. The book not only teaches the principles of persuasion, but, perhaps more importantly, teaches you to protect yourself from those who would persuade you to do things you would not otherwise do.

In this post, we are going to take a look into one of the most powerful and basic principles in Influence: the Rule of Reciprocation.

The Power of Reciprocation

As humans, we have a deep need to return the favor to others when a good deed is done for us.

This need is embedded into the fabric of human society. This is true to the point that those who don’t reciprocate get negative labels – moocher, ingrate, bum. These labels exist because there is an inherent understanding among humans that a person who has had something done for them should return the favor when the time comes.

For most humans, the need to return the favor is so powerful that our desire to reciprocate often holds no proportion to the original favor. In other words, a small initial favor can lead to a much “bigger” returned favor.

This is a very important concept to understand because it is frequently leveraged by salespeople, politicians, and persuaders of all stripes.

Returned Favors Much Larger Than the Original

Cialdini covers the details of a well-known experiment in which the power of “out of balance” reciprocation was shown. In this experiment, a disguised researcher offered to buy the test subject a Coke. Later, the subject was asked to buy 25-cent raffle tickets by the researcher The subjects that accepted a Coke purchased twice as many raffle tickets as the subjects who did not accept a Coke.

This doubling of average sales amounted to big returns for the Coke giver.  The value of a Coke at the time was 50 cents. But, raffle ticket sales went up by $2.50 if the test subject accepted the Coke.

This “out of balance” reciprocation is the reason a car salesperson offers you a Coke or a bottle of water. It’s also the reason a jewelry salesperson offers you a drink while you browse engagement rings. It’s the reason that salespeople of all kinds offer to take a client to lunch.

In all the above cases, the cost of a beverage or a lunch is miniscule. So, adding slightly to the chances of making a large sale more than makes up the difference. Going from a 15% chance to sell a car to a 30% chance to sell a car by giving up only a soft drink is a very good deal for the seller.

The Takeaway

  1. Most people feel a strong need to “return the favor” when something nice is done for them. At a minimum, acceptance of a favor makes it much harder to tell the giver “no”.
  2. The “returned favor” can often be much larger than the original favor. A $1 Coke can make someone more likely to purchase a car or award a contract. This is why ethics laws and policies are becoming increasingly robust.
  3. When you have extra time, money, or expertise you can give away, it’s often worthwhile to do so. The value of future favors made available by doing this will often far exceed your short-term cost.
  4. Don’t accept favors of any size from someone unless you want to give them some degree of influence over you. If you accept a favor from a person, you give that person some amount of power over you.

Want to read more about the power of persuasion? Check out Cialdini’s full book at Amazon by clicking here.

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