Whilst shopping over Christmas, I constantly found myself bombarded with free samples from vendors, who had set up charming stalls outside their usual place of commerce, as they looked to provide shoppers with small gestures of seasonal goodwill. At first I took the samples, often bite-sized treats from food companies, and then continued on my way without buying anything. However, I slowly started to feel a creeping dread at passing these vendors that was accompanied by a sense of guilt, because I was not buying anything. As I swerved round people to distance myself from the samples I began to question why I felt so guilty at taking a sample which was a simple no-strings-attached offering from a huge company, to whom a tiny slice of pretzel was nothing.
Whilst there is nothing malicious in offering a free sample (companies do it to expose customers to their products), it is taking advantage of the rule of reciprocity (Cialidini, 1993). This rule dictates that when we receive a gift from another person we feel obliged to reciprocate this. Thus, when a sales vendor gifts us with a free sample, we often feel obliged to give them something in return. There is a wealth of evidence to support the rule of reciprocity. For example, in 1976 social psychologist Phillip Kunz sent out just over 500 Christmas cards to people who would not know he was, and received over 150 cards back, as people felt that they should repay this gesture in kind. However, the rule does not dictate that the reciprocated gift need be the same. For example, it would be odd to return the gift of a pretzel sample with a pretzel sample, so the only way that this can be achieved is through buying a product.
Moreover, my feeling of obligation was further moderated by my belief in a just world. As I took the free sample and carried on with my shopping, I began to feel as if I was being unfair towards to the sales vendor who was being nice to me by giving me an unsolicited gift. The combination of my belief in a just world and the rule of reciprocity made me believe that the sales vendor deserved something in return for being nice. Edlund et al (2007) demonstrated this effect by replicating Regan’s (1971) experiment in which a participant is given a bottle of drink by a confederate, and is then asked to comply in some way. In this case they were asked to buy tickets to an Alumni event for $2. Edlund et al found that participants bought more tickets if they were given a gift, and that this was moderated by their belief in a just world; participants with a higher belief bought more than those with a low belief.
Fig 1. A table to show the number of charity tickets bought by people who either received a gift or not, as a function of their belief in a just world.
This study is an example of the rule of reciprocation and how it induces people to return a gift. The genius behind offering free samples lies in the elicitation of an uninvited debt between the company and the consumer, which is often repaid unfairly by the consumer in favour of the company. For example, in the case of the pretzel sample, there is nothing on the menu which is to the value of a small slither of pretzel and so to reciprocate the gift I end up buying a whole pretzel which is obviously favourable to the company who get a large return on their small ‘gift’. However, now that I’m wise to their sneaky technique to make me feel guilty and buy their products, I am going to make a concentrated effort to walk past the free sample vendor a number of times, in a variety of different disguises now to balance out all the pretzels I have been guilt-tripped into buying.
Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: Science and practice (3rd ed.). New York: HarperCollins.
Edlund, J. E., Sagarin, B. J., Johnson, B. S. (2007). Reciprocity and the belief in a just world. Personality and Individual Differences 43, 589-96.
Kunz, P.R., & Woolcott, M. (1976). Season's greetings: From my status to yours. Social Science Research, 5, 269-278.
Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7,627-639.