An Introduction to Reciprocity

07-20-2009 BY Bill Bulman

n. pl. rec·i·proc·i·ties
1. A reciprocal condition or relationship.
2. A mutual or cooperative interchange of favors or privileges, especially the exchange of rights or privileges of trade between nations.

The paramount driver of Reciprocity is that all people are psychologically driven to repay debts of all kinds.  If someone does something for you, you feel obligated to repay, almost always on instinct.

Real-World examples include things like:

  • A Coworker asks you to work a shift for them, and you say yes, even though you had plans, because a few months ago the coworker worked a shift for you.
  • A client and you are having lunch and as the check arrives the client grabs it and says, “Lunch is on me. You get it next time.”  Then a few days later the client calls and asks you to do something extra outside the scope of work on the project, and you automatically say Yes.  How could you refuse after such a nice lunch the client paid for?
  • In the 70’s and 80’s Hare Krishnas were common at airports, where they gave travelers a flower and then asked for a donation. Once the traveler has taken a beautiful flower, it is hard to refuse a donation.

Reciprocity is a shortcut for making a decision about doing something for someone, based solely on your past experience with that person. In layman’s terms it is called Returning the Favor.  This future obligation allows for various types of continued relationships, transactions, and exchanges.

According to cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, there is not a human society in the world that doesn’t follow the principle of Reciprocity.  This principle is rooted in our subconscious, trained from childhood and is almost impossible to resist without suffering social disapproval.

3 Basic Types of Reciprocity

Generalized Reciprocity is the when one person gives away goods and services to another person without expecting anything in return. The giver feels a sense of satisfaction, and the social connection the gift fosters.  In modern society this occurs mainly between children and parents or within couples. In other cultures it can occur within large kin groups or clans.

There is usually a large amount of trust and a minimal amount of social distance between the giver and receiver.


Balance/Symmetrical Reciprocity is when one person gives something to another person, expecting a fair and substantial return at some later date. The social expectation is that people will repay their debts in the future. Those take and do not give back are ostracized from the group and labeled as such. Examples include Mooch, Freeloader, Bum, etc.

As a person begins to not pay back these favors it becomes harder and harder for them to obtain favors from others.

There is usually a moderate amount of trust and social distance between two participants.


Negative Reciprocity is when a person provides goods or labor and expects to be repaid immediately with other goods or labor of similar value. This is also called the act of bartering.  Negative Reciprocity usually takes place between acquaintances or strangers, as it can involve a minimum amount of trust and a maximum social distance.


Negative Reciprocity was and still is a prevalent form of exchange in nonindustrial societies between different groups. Another term that you may have heard that relates to Negative Reciprocity is the common phrase “quid pro quo”.

So how does this relate to the world of marketing?

The simplest form of Reciprocity is for a brand to give something away. This can be a gift, a service, valuable information, or anything of perceived value to the consumer.  This is done to create a feeling of indebtedness to the brand. Once the person has received value from the “free gift”, they are more prone to accepting a sales pitch.

A perfect example of this online are web applications that have a free 30 day trial, or a free basic plan. Once the consumer feels the application provides them some value, they are more like to be enticed by upsells.

Characteristics that make Reciprocity so powerful include:

  • The principle is is so overwhelming it normally cancels out all other factors in regards to accepting the request.
  • Uninvited initial favors exceedingly decrease our ability to decide who and what we owe, and put the choice in the hands of others.
  • Reciprocity is so strong that it can easily spur unequal value exchanges.  For example, an individual may agree to a much larger favor then initial received, just to remove the uncomfortable feeling of indebtedness.

How Reciprocity is used in sales

Another way in which the Rule of Reciprocity can increase compliance involves a simple variation on the basic theme: instead of providing a favor first that stimulates a returned favor, an individual can make instead an initial concession–that stimulates a return concession.

One compliance procedure, called the “rejection-then-retreat technique”, or door-in-the-face technique, relies heavily on the pressure to reciprocate concessions. By starting with an extreme request that is sure to be rejected, the requester can then profitably retreat to a smaller request–the one that was desired all along. This request is likely to now be accepted because it appears to be a concession. Research indicates, that aside from increasing the likelihood that a person will say yes to a request–the rejection-then-retreat technique also increases the likelihood that the person will carry out the request a will agree to future requests.


The best defense against manipulation by the use of the Rule of Reciprocity to gain compliance is not the total rejection of initial offers by others. But rather, accepting initial favors or concessions in good faith, while also remaining prepared to see through them as tricks–should they later be proven so. Once they are seen in this way, there is no longer a need to feel the necessity to respond with a favor or concession.

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