The Law of Reciprocity at Work!
I’d like to introduce you to a man named Phillip Kunz. You may already know the name because you may have received a Christmas card from him without knowing it. Of course, maybe you won’t remember because it was way back in 1974 when he sent you a Christmas card. You see, Phillip Kunz was a professor at Brigham Young University at the time and he wanted to conduct an experiment. He wanted to see what would happen if he mailed out Christmas cards to a bunch of random people that he didn’t know, and who didn’t know him. He gathered up a bunch of phone books from surrounding towns and began writing. He ended up sending out 600 hand written notes and cards to random strangers and then waited. What happened was nothing less than amazing, although quite understandable once you understand why it happened. Within the first week or so, he started to receive a few return cards and notes. Then, within a few more weeks, the letters and notes came pouring in. When they finally stopped arriving, Phillip Kunz had received more than 200 return cards, notes, and letters, some of which were 3 and 4 pages long from complete strangers.
How does this happen? Why did this happen? What makes this possible? Well, you may already have a sense of why and how it happened because the programming for something like this is hardwired into each and every one of us as human beings. What we’re talking about is a principle called the law of reciprocity. What the law of reciprocity says, in essence, is that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. Of course, this isn’t a written law, it’s not required by any municipality to repay a gift that’s been given to you. This is different, by the way, from your local water department providing you with water, and you paying the subsequent water bill. That’s a loose form of the law of reciprocation, but not quite the same. That’s more of a contractual agreement of somebody providing a product or services, and you paying for it. THe kind of reciprocation we’re talking about is an unwritten law that has existed for almost the whole of humanity. As long as humans have been human, and there’s lots of evidence that this exists in the animal kingdom as well, there has existed an unwritten law and understanding that, to survive as a species, we must give in order to have any expectation of receiving, even if it’s not in direct proportion to the gift, or even at the same time as the initial gift.
The famous anthropologist, Richard Leakey, spoke many times about the lessons learned from studying ancient societies. One of his famous quotes on the topic is this, “We are all human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.” He went on to explain that this unwritten law of reciprocity allowed for the division of labor, the exchange of goods and services, and a sense of peace about giving stuff away. This widely shared, and strongly held sense of future obligation, the obligation to repay somebody for their generosity, made a massive difference in the evolution of our species because it allowed for the opportunity of one man to give to another knowing with confidence that the thing given was not lost. Having to give up vital resources to another with a fear that it will simply be gone, never to be returned, is what leads to a lack mentality. The opposite of a lack mentality is an abundance mentality, which, at its core, is the recognition that there is always enough to go around. Beyond its core, the abundance mentality encourages giving freely of one’s resources knowing intuitively that what we give will, for sure, be returned in kind, and even often at a much greater return. Although a return is not necessarily expected, we should just give to give, as it pertains to this amazing law of reciprocity, we give to another knowing that, when we do, we activate this amazing law and some kind of return is likely. I’ll talk in a bit about outsized returns based on this law, but I’ll also talk a bit about how it’s sometimes used against us, and how to avoid being taken advantage of.
Let’s first talk about some examples of the law of reciprocity in daily life, so you learn to recognize what it is, where you may have experienced it, and how to avoid the negative aspects of it that may be used against you. One of the best examples of this law is Hare Krishnas. If you’re not familiar with them, they were a fairly prolific religious group popular in the 60’s and 70’s that would hang out at airports and in public spaces begging for money to fund their movement. They were dressed in their traditional indian religious garb, many with shaved heads, sometimes banging little drums and chanting their religious chants, and they’d simply accost people in the area for money. Over time, they realized that people became hip to their tactics, which weren’t that sophisticated really, and since many thought they were just weird, people would avoid them or simply ignore their requests. Not willing to be outdone by the unenlightened masses, the Hare Krishna leadership devised a genius plan. They knew all too well about human nature, after all, their precepts dictated that to reach their form of enlightened living one had to give up meat, fish, eggs, sex, gambling, alcohol, and caffeine, so they seemed to have some sense of enlightenment via deprivation, or depriving the body and mind of it’s vices to become pure and free of certain desires.
What the Hare Krishna also knew very well was this sense of obligation to repay one for their generosity, and especially for a gift given. So, they changed their tactics a bit and began giving out free gifts in the form of flowers and pencils to passersby in the airports and town square. You were handed the flower and, if you tried to give it back, you were told simply, ‘absolutely not, this is our gift to you, please enjoy it’, after which they would follow you a bit more and then ask for some money. What they quickly found was that their hypothesis was correct: by activating the law of reciprocity, a considerably higher percentage of people felt obligated to dig into their purses and wallets to give them some money. Even though the Hare Krishna weren’t giving the flowers in exchange for money, meaning they weren’t selling them, but instead giving them as gifts, they knew exactly what this would do psychologically to the receiver of the gift. It would flip a switch in the receiver’s DNA that was placed there hundreds of thousands of years earlier in the evolutionary process as a means of survival. If somebody gives us something we feel obligated to repay, in kind, based on the intention and generosity of the giver, not necessarily on the gift. Of course, not everybody gave up their money, but many more did after receiving the gifts.
Another example is the vagrant who runs out at a stoplight and begins cleaning your windshield and then unleashes the ask for some money. They don’t have a set price for that service, that would be a sales transaction, and it’s much easier to refuse a sales transaction as not needed or wanted. However, when somebody does something, seemingly for free, there is an automatic obligation that is triggered in the recipient to want to repay the generosity. The vagrant cleans the windshield, then approaches the driver’s side window and says, ‘anything you have will help, ma’am’. The vast majority of people feel obligated in some way to repay the kindness and will, at a bare minimum, dig into the change sitting in the center console to give the window cleaner. This is referred to as the ‘benefactor before beggar’ strategy.
Of course, we know one of the most common places this law is activated is in politics. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of things getting done in a political setting are getting done because of favors, and the obligatory return of prior favors given. Lyndon Johnson was well known as somebody who got lots of legislation passed during his term, and it was because he was able to call in lots of prior favors given in his life as a political DC veteran. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was hardly able to get anything passed and it was because he campaigned on being an outsider not beholden to anybody or anything. He didn’t owe anybody any favors so he was portrayed as more honest and pure than all of the other political animals he faced. However, it worked against him once in office because, although he owed nobody any favors, nobody else owed him any either. He had no chips to call in, so to speak, nor was he well versed on how that game was played. We know very well how corporations give politicians gifts in the way of trips, money, sex, drugs, and campaign donations as a way to curry favor for legislation that helps them in some way. Either by blocking corporate rivals, ending restrictive regulations, or in helping them get favorable licensing deals and a legislative leg up to grow their business.
Retail companies activate the law of reciprocity by giving free samples. They would tell you that it’s simply a way to get the benefits of their products and services into the hands of their potential customers, and it is, but it is also secretly activating the law of reciprocity without most knowing. There is a natural indebting force inherent in the gift of something free, even if it’s just a free trial, while it appears to just innocently inform the customer. Professional interrogators and hostage negotiators use this unwritten law to attempt to get something from the people they’re interrogating or negotiating with. If you’ve ever watched a police interrogation of a suspect, the interrogator will almost always ask the suspect if they’d like something to eat or drink, or maybe a cigarette. This seems like an innocuous ask, but it’s a strategic ask designed to activate the law of reciprocity. The suspect doesn’t know it yet, but that little switch in their DNA has just been flipped and their sense of an obligatory return of the favor may just have them confessing to something they had no plans of prior. Hostage negotiators will periodically send in food, drinks, maybe a cell phone, cigarettes, beer, or some other ‘gift’ as a way to get something in return through reciprocity. It’s such a strong impulse in all of us as humans that it works in every single culture around the world.
In a retail environment, the law of reciprocity is used extensively, and with great success! You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “but wait, that’s not all…”, which is a form of a reciprocity activation strategy. It’s a way to pile on value so the price of something is greatly minimized relative to the amount of perceived value being provided, but it’s also a way of triggering the human brain to say, ‘well look how much they’re willing to give me, I can’t not take advantage of this deal!” If you go to Costco or Sam’s Club, every third aisle on a Saturday or Sunday has a free sample cart. Yes, it’s designed to put the product into the hands and bellies of the customer, but it’s also meant to trigger the law of reciprocity. You take a sample, the sample lady or guy tells you about the product, you feel a little guilty about taking something for nothing, you feel a brief connection with the sample person, and you might put the product in your cart. 6 out of 10 people might walk away and buy nothing, but before the sample scenario it was 9 out of 10 who wouldn’t buy the product.
There have been a bunch of studies over the years about the law of reciprocity and how it’s played out in the lives of humans. One of the more famous studies was in the form of an experiment highlighted in the book by Robert Cialdini, The Power of Influence, is the famous Coke experiment. A researcher asked a group of test subject’s to buy some raffle tickets for an upcoming event, and then recorded the results of how many bought versus how many didn’t. Then the researcher gave the next set of test subjects a can of coke prior to the raffle ticket ask. They let some time pass so the Coke just seemed like just a nice gesture, then later he’d ask them to buy the raffle tickets. Of course, the researcher found that the raffle ticket buy rate was vastly improved in the Coke recipient category when compared with the non-Coke recipients. What’s the takeaway? Well, obviously people love Coke over Pepsi! No, I’m kidding. The takeaway was just how powerful the law of reciprocity lives within all of us.
It should also be noted that one of the takeaways from experiments like this is the concept of ‘outsized results’. The can of Coke cost the researcher $.50, versus the $5 worth of raffle tickets. The free add-ons in the infomercial are typically low cost items that add lots of perceived value for the buyer relative to the ask, or the cost of the item being purchased. A good example today is the free year of access to the Peloton online service when you buy a Peloton bike. Not only are you paying top of market price for the exercise bike, some large percentage will end up continuing the monthly service once the free trial ends, and they know that. The service costs the company some miniscule number since they’re already paying for all the programming, the staff, the classes, and the streaming, but it greatly increases the number of people willing to pull the proverbial trigger on a $2000 piece of equipment and a $500 per year software service. Low cost offer to trigger reciprocity, outsized result for the company.
Another way the law of reciprocity is used in retail, as well as in negotiations, is what is sometimes referred to as ‘anchoring’, or the ‘big ask’ contrast principle. What the ‘big ask’ contrast principle of reciprocity does is anchor your brain to a big, sometimes ridiculous request, only to get reduced to something that seems considerably more reasonable when compared to the big ask. This happened to me when I went to buy a new truck. I go in to talk with my buddy at the dealership about the new F150 I wanted. What does he do? He walks me over to the $85,000 fully loaded Ford Raptor. Why does he do this? One, to get me drooling over some of the features, but also to anchor in my brain what an $85,000 dollar truck payment would look like. When I say, ‘yeah, I’m good, I don’t want to have a $1500 per month car payment”, he says, “oh yeah, I know, I just wanted to give you an idea. Let me show you what your payment will be.” He then shows me a $500 or $600 per month payment and it looks like peanuts as compared to the Raptor payment. Hmmmm, way to go, buddy! We could use the windshield cleaning vagrant example as well. They hold out their hand and ask, “do you have a few bucks I could have?”, to which you reply, “I’m sorry, I don’t”, to which the expert street negotiator says, “that’s cool man, I’ll take whatever you can give.” This is an expert technique of going for the big ask, which may actually work 1 out of 10 times, but even if it doesn’t the negotiator is able to be perceived as making a concession to a lower amount. This activates the law of reciprocity where we feel like they were so understanding and generous in letting us off the hook that we dig into our pockets and give them a handful of pocket change. The law of reciprocity at play.
What I’d like to leave you with on this topic, however, is that the law of reciprocity is alive and well in every successful relationship, doesn’t matter if it’s a personal one or a professional one. In all successful relationships, there exists a principle of enlightened self interest. Enlightened self interest is the principle that says a person or a company will do well simply by doing good. We’re willing to give something away, in essence, a minor sacrifice in the short term knowing full well that the good will be reciprocated over a longer time horizon. We give love knowing it will be returned. We give money knowing it’s the good and right thing to do and that it will be returned in some form or fashion over time, even if not by the recipient of our good will. When reciprocity is fully integrated into a relationship, the drive of each party or partner comes from a place which says, ‘when I give freely, uncoercively, and unconditionally to another, my own well being is enhanced, regardless of how they respond. It’s the complete trust that, when we do right, the return comes to us through the act of giving, not as a result of it.
Now that you have a better understanding of how reciprocity is at play every day in a variety of ways, you’ll not only be able to see it when it occurs or when it’s activated, you’ll be able to employ the law in a way that serves everybody in an enlightened way. Until next week my friends, I’m out…