Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The power of Reciprocation

It’s safe to say I was relieved to discover I am not the only one who experiences a large weight on my shoulders once someone has done something nice for me. Whether this be buying me a gift, an invitation or doing me a favour, I am greeted with a heavy sense of obligation to return said ‘thing’ to the individual who gave it to me. Cialdini’s (2007) chapter on reciprocation allowed me to recognise there is a universal response through the rule for reciprocation. This simply states that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.

The more you think about this, the more you realise its strength; the boxes of chocolates and lifts into town you have been giving your peers somehow make more sense. As a Psychology student, why I have committed so much time to being another’s participant, despite the ever-growing list of deadlines, has now become clear. It is a repayment of the time they have given me by being my participant.
To give a more recent example, a friend of mine recently returned from Disneyland, somewhere, as a beloved Disney fan, I would love to go. She returned from her trip with a gift for me; a beautiful autograph book, filled with the signatures of my favourite characters. It is safe to say this is one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received and it is hugely appreciated. A week later, when my friend returned home from work, awaiting her was a cactus I had purchased from a plant stall. It wears a sombrero, has googly eyes, and sits proudly on her chest of drawers. At the time, the simple thought that she would love this cactus and therefore, I should buy it for her (looking back, I’m not sure a cactus would have ever made her shopping list, but it’s the thought that counts). It is now clear to me that the rule of reciprocation must have been at play; she had bought me a present thus, I owed her one in return.
I have to say it was a form of comfort that my inability to say no to doing a favour for people and my ever growing habit of purchasing comical presents has a reason; and the answer to gaining back some of my free time and money isn’t simply becoming a nastier person.

Cialdni suggests the power to say no comes from mentally restructuring the nice thing that has been done for us to its bare basics. If somebody in a store gives you a free sample, recognise it as a marketing technique and you will no longer feel the sense of obligation to purchase the product. After reading this, I felt empowered. I would no longer be submitting my free time and hard earnt money to the rue of reciprocation; I was free.

As it turns out, I was naïve and premature in my conclusions. A friend asked me for a lift for him and his cousin to his brother’s wedding, and in return would pay me £10. In its simplicity; this is a business transaction; he was essentially paying me for my time and petrol, so in light of new found freedom I decided this was safe, and agreed. Yesterday we piled into my car and I drove them to the wedding. All had gone well until he handed me the money, £10 more than we had agreed. Well I found this very nice and drove home with a smile on my face. Within half an hour of dropping them off I had sent him a text and offered to pick him up from the wedding when it finished. It wasn’t until I had pressed send and was deciding what I would be spending my £20 on, with a cup of tea, that I realised I had been trapped by the rule of reciprocation once more. What’s more, I had been trapped despite my desperate attempts to keep it in my conscious awareness and not to be one of its victims.
The rule of reciprocation exists for a reason; as Cianldni identifies, if we were always to accept favours and offer nothing in return it would not be long before this individual stopped their offerings. Chances are we would also be disliked through not fitting in with the social norms, norms that suggest we should ‘give and take’. It is clear my desperate attempts to avoid the rule at all costs failed miserably, but some level of awareness of its power will definitely be beneficial in the future, with better practice at saying no!


Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Reciprocation in Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.

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