To get into the festive spirit, my flat-mates and I decided to do ‘Secret Santa’ – everyone’s name is put into a hat, taken out at random by each person, and whoever’s name you pull out you are responsible for getting a gift, without telling anyone else who you have. We agreed that the present would be between £10 and £20. I chose my gift in line with the basic principles of gift giving – it was something that he would use, something thoughtful, at least in the sense that he wouldn’t have to keep going and getting them himself, and something slightly funny (not really) which I thought would be an element to everyone’s gifts living in a house with 9 other guys. My flat-mate is obsessed with Rubicon Mango – he drinks several every day, so my idea was to get him a Christmas supply so he wouldn’t have to keep going to the shop to get more (pathetic, I know).
My secret Santa revealed his gift early as he had to go home. To my horror, it wasn’t something of the value of £10, nor was it something whacky, like mine – it was something I really needed, incredibly thoughtful, and significantly more expensive. This set the precedent for the level of gifts this Secret Santa required, and within 10 minutes I found myself back out onto the parade, looking for another gift. Why? The answer can be found in the rule of reciprocation (Cialdini, 2009). The rule, embedded within human social culture, states that ‘we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us’ (Cialdini 2009:19). When someone does a favour for us, we feel indebted to that person, and feel obliged to return a favour of proportionate value. The effect of the principle is demonstrated brilliantly in Dennis Regan’s (1971) study. A ‘fake’ experiment is designed for two participants – one an unwitting subject and the other a confederate, in which they are told that the characteristics of paintings and how they provide aesthetic enjoyment is being studied. During a break in the experiment, the confederate steps out of the room and is instructed to do one of two things. In the favour condition, he returns with two Coca Colas, and offers one to the subject. In the No Favour condition, the confederate simply returns to his desk. Later on, the confederate asks the subject if he wishes to purchase raffle tickets from him which he says could help him win a prize. Regan found that subjects in the Favour condition reliably bought more raffle tickets than subjects in the No Favour condition.
My story of reciprocation is almost laughable, since it seems like as flagrant an example of the reciprocity principle you could get. Usually when you choose a gift, it is one whole item, and in that sense the price is fixed. In my case, the nature of the gift allowed me to manipulate how much I was spending – if I wanted to spend more, I could have simply added more cans into my basket. The only thing that stopped me was my perception of the value of the gifts that was suitable. When I realised that the others’ gifts would be of much greater value than mine, I felt obliged to get a better one, and felt some sense of embarrassment for grossly underestimating the exchange with my own gift idea.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Pearson Education.
Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(6), 627-639.