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, March 3, 2018

Free food and the act of reciprocity

As a food lover I know all too well how hard it is to resist free food samples in a supermarket! But it’s people like me that supermarkets aim to target with their free food. The number of times I have bought a product after taking a free sample is too many to count. And this is all down to the act of reciprocity.

Reciprocity is a powerful method of social influence. If someone pays us a favour, we automatically feel obligated to return a favour (Caildini, 2007). It creates a tension state as to whether we will live up to the social obligation or not (Pratkains, 2007). It is this social obligation that supermarkets are aiming to exploit with their free samples.  By taking a free sample, supermarkets are counting on us to feel obliged to buy the product we have just tried in return for gaining some free food, even if it was a very small sample, as they often are!

The act of reciprocity isn’t just limited to supermarkets; it can be seen in many other social situations. Regan (1971) demonstrated that participants were more likely to purchase raffle tickets when they had received a favour in the form of a soft drink, in comparison to those who weren’t given a soft drink. Kunz and Woolcott (1976) showed the effect of reciprocity by sending people Christmas cards. Many people didn’t even question the source of the card and simply returned the kind favour and sent one back!

So next time you reach for that free sample of food, first ask yourself if you really intend on buying the product you are about to be persuaded to buy.


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

Kunz, P. R., & Woolcott, M. (1976). Season's greetings: From my status to yours. Social Science Research.

Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. New York: Psychology Press.

Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of experimental social psychology7(6), 627-639.

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