1 Week and We Just Don’t Care
When somebody does something for us, we suddenly develop a feeling of tension, and feel obliged to try and repay the person, regardless of whether or not we actually wanted whatever they did for us. This is known as reciprocity (Pratkanis, 2007).
Kunz & Woolcott (1976) demonstrated the norm of reciprocity by sending out Christmas cards to complete strangers, and actually receiving many replies, some featuring little handwritten notes and even family photographs. We know reciprocity exists, but does this sense of obligation remain forever, or is there a cutoff point after the passing of a certain amount of time? Burger, Horita, Kinoshita, Roberts & Vera (1997) investigated the effect that the passage of time has on the rule of reciprocity.
In their first experiment, a confederate unexpectedly bought the participant a can of Coca Cola. In the immediate condition, the confederate then produced an envelope and explained that they needed to get it to a certain office within the next 20 minutes. The office was a 5 minute walk away in an out-of-the-way part of campus. The confederate asked the participant if they’d mind taking the envelope to the office as they had somewhere else they needed to be. In the delayed condition, the participant signed up to another experimental session 1 week later. At this session 1 week later they met the confederate again, who then proceeded to try and get the participant to deliver the envelope for them just as they did for participants in the immediate condition. In the control condition the confederate didn’t give the participant a can of Coca Cola, so the rule of reciprocity was never engaged.
It was found that those in the immediate condition were significantly more likely to comply with the confederate’s request and deliver the envelope. Participants in the delayed condition were not significantly more likely to comply than those in the control condition. Table 1 shows the number of participants who agreed or refused the request, and the percentage who agreed to the request for all 3 conditions. So, the gift of a free drink made participants comply with a later request, however this obligation faded over 1 week.
Table 1: number and percentage of participants who agreed or refused the confederate’s request for immediate, delayed, and control conditions.
Did the participants actually just forget that the confederate had bought them a drink 1 week earlier? The researchers went further with a second experiment, hoping to weaken this argument. In experiment 2, participants read about 3 scenarios that involved them being helped by other people, and then these people requesting help in return. The scenarios were written with 1 week, 2 months, or 1 year passing between the initial favour and the request for help. Participants had to use their imagination to judge whether or not they’d help this person with the given timeframe. It was found that the longer the delay between the initial favour and the request, the less compliance there was.
Both results support the argument that the compliance tactic of reciprocity fades over time. However this doesn’t apply to all cases. There are some circumstances where it must extend for a long time, for example, I would imagine that having somebody save your life would possibly result in a longer standing feeling of reciprocity. Regardless of this, it seems that the reciprocity induced by a small initial favour is fairly short lived.
Burger, J. M., Horita, M., Kinoshita, L., Roberts, K., & Vera, C. (1997). Effects on time on the norm of reciprocity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19, 91-100.
Kunz, P. R., & Woolcott, M. (1976). Season's greetings: From my status to yours. Social Science Research, 5, 269-278.
Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. The science of social influence: Advances and future progress, 17-82.