What Is the Norm of Reciprocity?

When Someone Does Something Nice, Most People Want to Return the Favor

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 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.

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.

Why Do We Feel a Need to Reciprocate?

Such behavior has a few obvious benefits. For one thing, taking care of others helps 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

There are a number of persuasion techniques that employ the tactic of reciprocity. These strategies are used by people who are trying to persuade you to take an action or conform with a request, such as salespeople or politicians.

One of these is known as the 'that's-not-all' technique. Let's say you're shopping for a new mobile phone. The salesperson shows you a phone and tells you the price, but you're still not quite sure. If the salesperson offers to add a phone case at no additional charge, you might feel like he's doing you a favor, which in turn might make you feel obligated to buy the phone.

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.

Sources:

Molm, L. "The Structure of Reciprocity." Social Psychology Quarterly April 2010

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

Zimbardo, P. G., & Leippe, M. R. (1991).

The psychology of attitude change and social influence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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