The norm of reciprocity states that we should repay what another has done for us (Cialdini, 2014). But does this norm operate in a standard fashion, or is its power affected by situational factors?
Wesbter, Smith and Rhodes (1999) aimed to investigate the processes upon which the norm of reciprocity operates. An individual can return a favour because of a public process, that is, it is their social duty to reciprocate in order to maintain a cooperative community, which hints at an evolutionary purpose. Moreover, an individual can return a favour because of the private process of the psychological uneasiness of feeling indebted. Using the same procedure as Regan (1971), Webster et al. asked participants to evaluate art with a confederate. They were permitted a three minute break, during which the confederate left and returned with two packets of M&Ms, including one for the participant, 50% of the time. Webster et al.’s manipulation came after the art evaluation phase: the experimenter kept the participant waiting while the confederate filled out forms in another room. The experimenter returned to the participant apologising for the wait, and gave them a charity form, which was said to belong to the confederate. The experimenter explained that while the participant was waiting, the confederate asked if they would fill out a charity sponsorship form, and that the experimenter will mail it to the confederate for them. The form was left with the participant while the experimenter returned again to the confederate. Crucially, the form either required the participant’s name, address and phone number (public condition), or no identifiable information (private condition). This meant the participant expected the confederate to either know (public) or not know (private) whether they complied with the request.
The favour (M&Ms) induced greater compliance overall and even greater compliance occurred when the returning favour was public. Furthermore, Figure 1 shows that a significantly higher amount of money was pledged when the participant received a favour and when the compliance request for charity money occurred publicly. The researchers came across an interesting publicity x gender interaction (Figure 2), such that females pledged more money in the public condition, suggesting females are more susceptible to the social pressure to reciprocate.
The findings demonstrate that reciprocity does not operate in a standard fashion; it is mediated by the context in which it occurs. They suggest that the social pressure to repay is stronger than the psychological feeling of indebtedness, because more participants in the public condition decided to donate, and they donated a higher amount. Females pledged more money in the public condition, suggesting the norm may also operate on gender-specific dispositional factors; that females may have a greater urge to avoid social disapproval than males.
This study shows that if you really want something done for you, do a female a favour, and then request the returning favour publicly. Of course, the request should not be too large or bold, as this may lead to reactance!
Cialdini, R. B. (2014). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.
Regan, R. T. (1971). Effects of favour and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.
Webster, J. M., Smith, R. H., Rhodes, A. (1999). The effect of a favour on public and private compliance: How internalised is the norm of reciprocity? Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 251-259.