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.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why do we return favours?

If someone does an uninvited favour for you, does it encourage you to repay the favour? If it does, then is it obligation or gratitude that is making you want to reciprocate (Goei & Boster, 2005)? Scholars often distinguish obligation and gratitude in the favor-compliance relationship (Gouldner, 1960) however there is no empirical evidence to prove this. For this reason, Goei & Boster (2005) conducted two experiments.

In experiment 1, participants and confederates sat in separate cubicles and were made to do a brainstorming task. The confederate then went to get a drink and upon return either gave the participant no drink, gave a drink and said “hey I got you one too,” or when thanked said “don’t worry about, its nothing” or said  “yep, you owe me one.” The results from the favor survey showed that surprisingly participants did not report high levels of obligation after the favor, but instead reported high levels of gratitude (see table 1).

To increase the levels of obligation experiment 2 was conducted. The manipulation of the experiment was to induce a feeling of responsibility that costs were incurred to the confederate. This was done by the confederate offering the participants a booklet, which was close by (i.e. low cost) or one that they had to run and get from a different place (i.e. high cost- more effort). Another variable was added whereby the participants either anticipated or didn’t anticipate meeting the confederate in the future. To see the effect of these variables confederates asked the participants to buy raffle tickets after the brainstorming task. The results showed that when costs were high and participants anticipated meeting the confederate in the future, gratitude and compliance were high compared to when there was a low cost and no anticipation for the future involved (see table 2).

In conclusion, this experiment (Goei & Bolster, 2005) shows that favors and favor costs do increase gratitude but unexpectedly do not increase obligation. Obligation is only increased when participants were told “yep, you owe me one.”  This could be because this statement may increase debt awareness, and since obligation is an uncomfortable state  (Greenberg & Shapiro, 1971), the beneficiaries may want to reduce it. To do this they must comply to the confederate’s request to buy raffle tickets. However otherwise, majority of studies have found that obligation has no effect on compliance. In contrast gratitude had a positive effect on compliance because gratitude is a state that is positive and associated with contentment (McCullough, Kilpatrick, Emmons, & Larson, 2001) so as a result the beneficiary reciprocates by complying out of desire to help the benefactor.  Hence, if the favor is returned it is usually due to gratitude, not obligation. 


Goei, R., & Boster, F. J. (2005). The Roles of Obligation and Gratitude in Explaining the Effect of Favors on Compliance This paper is based on the first author's doctoral dissertation and was presented at the International Communication Association's 54th annual convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, May 2004. Communication Monographs72(3), 284-300.

Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement.American sociological review, 161-178.

Greenberg, M. S., & Shapiro, S. P. (1971). Indebtedness: An adverse aspect of asking for and receiving help. Sociometry.

McCullough, M. E., Kilpatrick, S. D., Emmons, R. A., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect?. Psychological bulletin127(2), 249.

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