The Power of Give to Get: How Reciprocity Shapes Our Actions

By Zhecho Dobrev

The Power of Give to Get: How Reciprocity Shapes Our Actions

Does it happen to you that you go to the supermarket and feel attracted to a promotional test sample stand where they promote a brand of cheese, wine, or cookies? And then when you taste the free sample that they give you, there’s an inner urge in you to buy that product. Not because the product is so good and different from all the other wines, cheese, and cookies that you normally buy, but because you feel a little urged to return the favor? It definitely happens to me and judging by how often I see these promotions in supermarkets, it must happen to many other people as well. And there is a scientific explanation for that.

Here’s what happened to me yesterday and think, if your family was in that situation, would the result be different? We were standing at a traffic light in the car and there was a beggar going from car to car. I guess I might be like most people, sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t. In this particular case, I  was neither in a mood nor had the change. The beggar though approached my life and went to the other side of the car and started making her compliments and wishing her all good things. So she happily gave him some change. This reminded me again about the principle of reciprocity.

Reciprocity is a fundamental principle in behavioral science, suggesting that people tend to return favors and respond kindly to positive actions. This principle is rooted deeply in human psychology and social norms, creating a powerful tool for influencing behavior and fostering cooperative relationships.

It turns out that, as in the case of the beggar, we tend to respond kindly to positive wishes even when approached by total strangers.

The Christmas Cards Experiment

Back in 1976, sociologists Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott used Christmas cards in an experiment to see just how many people would reciprocate the receipt of a holiday card by mailing their own Christmas cards back…to perfect strangers. They picked the names of 578 perfect strangers from the Chicago city directory and mailed them Christmas cards. Not everyone got the same exact card, mind you. Some people got expensive, high-quality cards decorated with poetry inscriptions and beautiful wintery scenes, while others got plain, white cards with “Merry Christmas” handwritten in red Sharpie marker across the front. Some people received their cards from “Dr. and Mrs. Kunz,” while others simply received a card signed from “Phil and Joyce.” But in every case, two facts remained — people received a card with a clearly marked return address, and that return address had the names of two people that they had never met before in their entire lives.

Despite the fact that they had received a card from total strangers, 20% of the recipients felt the need to respond to his Christmas card by sending their cards back. These responses ranged from a simple mailing back of their own generic holiday cards, to pictures of their children and pets, to several-page-long letters detailing what had been going on in their lives over the past few years.

The study had another objective as well – to find what would change the rates of response. They found that people were more likely to respond back to higher-quality cards (30% for the higher-quality cards vs. 15% for the lower-quality cards) and when the senders were higher-status (26% of the recipients returned cards to Dr. and Mrs. Kunz, whereas only 15% returned cards to Phil and Joyce).

The role of candy in restaurant tips

Another interesting study comes from the restaurant business. This experiment was conducted by behavioral scientist David Strohmetz and his colleagues and involved the role of candy in restaurant tips. In one condition, restaurant servers delivered the bill along with one piece of candy for each guest at the table. This got them a small increase in tips—3.3 % —compared to presenting the bill with no candies. However, when the servers upped the number of candies to two per guest, their tips increased by 14.1 %.

The authors attribute this to the significance the diners attached to the extra candies. While receiving one candy apiece was not unexpected, receiving extra candies was. And as Cialdini et al note, “the more a person gives to us, the more we feel obligated to give in return.”

The third part of the experiment is the most interesting. The servers delivered the check along with one piece of candy for each person at the table, and then turned to leave. But before they did, they turned back to the table, reached into a pocket, and withdrew additional candies, putting a second one on the table for each guest. The guests could have interpreted the move as one meant especially for them.

This bit of personalization increased the servers’ tips by a sizable 23%.

​​How is reciprocity used in business?

The reciprocity principle has a lot of applications in business. Have you noticed how most charities give you something when they ask for your donation? In one experiment, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) charity, found that when they sent letters soliciting donations, 18% responded back. However, when those letters were accompanied by a free gift – a personalized address plate, the response rate jumped to 35%. Why? Because people felt urged to repay in kind.

The reciprocity principle works when it comes to employee engagement as well. Here’s what one employee said about why not changing his job:

 ”He gives me and my son gifts for Christmas and gives me presents on my birthday. There is no promotion for the type of job I have, and my only choice is to move to another department. But I find myself resisting trying to move. My boss is reaching retirement age, and I am thinking I will be able to move after he retires … For now, I feel obligated to stay since he has been so nice to me.”

Keep in mind though, that there is also the saying: “If you want to get rid of someone, lend them some money”. We therefore remind you that, like any principle of behavioral science, there are no guarantees that it will have a tangible effect or that it will be the most effective intervention. Therefore, next time we will talk about smart ways to harness one of the most powerful decision-making shortcuts and which mistakes to avoid.

Do you have stories of the reciprocity effect in action? Follow us on Social Media and let us know in the comments.