What Is the Norm of Reciprocity?

Reciprocity compels us to return favors.
The rule of reciprocity compels us to help those who have helped us. Natalie Racioppa / Getty Images

The norm of reciprocity, sometimes referred to as the rule of reciprocity, is a social norm where if someone does something for you, you then feel obligated to return the favor. One area where this norm is commonly employed is in the field of marketing. Marketers utilize a broad range of strategies to convince consumers to make purchases. Some are straightforward such as sales, coupons, and special promotions.

Others are far more subtle and make use of principles of human psychology of which many people are not even aware.

How Does the Norm of Reciprocity Work?

Have you ever felt obligated to do something for someone because they first did something for you? The norm of reciprocity is just one type of social norm that can have a powerful influence on our behavior.

This rule operates on a simple principle: We tend to feel obligated to return favors after people do favors for us. When your new neighbors bring over a plate of cookies to welcome you to the neighborhood, you might feel obligated to return the favor when they ask you to take care of their dog while they are on vacation.

Examples of Reciprocity in Action

Just how powerful is the norm of reciprocity? In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz conducted an interesting experiment. He mailed out handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of him and his family to approximately 600 randomly selected people.

All of the recipients of the cards were complete strangers. Shortly after mailing the cards, responses began trickling in. All total, Kunz received nearly 200 replies. Why would so many people reply to a complete stranger? This is the rule of reciprocity at work. Since Kunz had done something for them (sent a thoughtful note during the holiday season), many recipients felt obligated to return the favor.

In another notable study, researchers found that waiters received bigger tips if they gave patrons a mint along with their bill. When the waiters paused, made eye contact with the customers, and gave them a second mint while stating that the mint was especially for the patron, tips shot up by a whopping 20 percent.

Why Do We Feel a Need to Reciprocate?

So why exactly do we feel this overwhelming need to reciprocate? Experts suggest that such behavior has some obvious benefits – it is one of those things that aids in the survival of the species. By reciprocating, we ensure that other people receive help when they need it and that we receive assistance when we need it.

Reciprocity and Persuasion

Marketers and salespeople also make use of this social norm. Think about the last time a salesperson offered you a free item in return for listening to his or her sales pitch. Afterwards, did you feel a sense of obligation to buy something else? While you technically have no commitment to buy anything, you might find yourself experiencing an uncomfortable feeling of obligation. No, you might not have to buy anything, but after receiving a gift you probably do feel pressured to purchase a product.

There are a number of persuasion techniques that utilize this norm of reciprocity. These strategies are used by people who are trying to persuade you to take an action or conform with a request. One of these is known as the 'that's-not-all' technique.

For example, imagine that you are shopping for a new mobile phone. The salesperson shows you a phone and tells you the price, but you're still not quite sure. "Look, this is a great deal, but I'm also willing to throw in a new case for the phone as well," the sales representative says. It then appears that the salesperson is doing you a favor by offering an additional item that you did not request.

By doing you this 'favor,' you might then feel obligated to buy that particular phone.

Another often used persuasion technique is known as the door-in-the-face strategy. In this scenario, someone starts by making a large request. For example, an acquaintance asks if he can borrow $1,000. After you refuse (or 'slam the door in his face,' so to speak), he then backs off and makes a much smaller request, asking if you could just loan him $50.

From your point of view, it appears that this acquaintance has made a sort of concession. He really needs $1,000, but he'll settle for $50. The rule of reciprocity leads you to feel that you must also make a concession. No, you won't loan him the large amount, but you concede that you could loan him the smaller amount. This acquaintance's real goal all along, however, was to get you to comply with the smaller request.

Can You Resist Reciprocity?

In many cases, the reciprocity norm is actually a good thing. It helps us behave in socially acceptable ways and allows us to engage in social give-and-take with the people around us. But what should you do if you are trying to overcome the urge to reciprocate, such as trying to avoid the need to purchase an item after receiving a freebie?

  • Give it some time. Experts suggest that the urge to reciprocate is strongest immediately after the initial exchange. If you can wait, you will probably feel less pressure to return the favor.
  • Evaluate the exchange. Think about whether the favor measures up to the expected return. In many cases, the initial gift or favor is much smaller than the requested return favor.

Making Reciprocity Work for You

What if you want to put the rule of reciprocity to work in your life? Whether you work in sales or not, you can utilize this psychological principle in positive ways. You can start by being the first to give. Don't wait for other people to do you a favor or give you a gift. By being the first one to give something, do a favor, or make a concession, you will find that others will probably feel compelled to return your kindness. Best of all, it doesn't have to be an actual item of value. Opening the door for a stranger, driving a friend to a doctor's appointment, or even offering a smile to another person are all prosocial behaviors that might inspire reciprocal acts of kindness.

Learn more about the psychology of social influence:


Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Kunz, P. R. (1976). Season's greetings: From my status to yours. Social Science Research, 5(3), 269–278.

Spiegal, A. (2012, Nov.26). Give And Take: How The Rule Of Reciprocation Binds Us. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/26/165570502/give-and-take-how-the-rule-of-reciprocation-binds-us

Stohmetz, D. B., Rind, B., Fisher, R., & Lynn, M. (2002). Sweetening the till: The use of candy to increase restaurant tipping. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 300-309.

Zimbardo, P. G., & Leippe, M. R. (1991). The psychology of attitude change and social influence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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