Reciprocity, the power of gifts


  • Economy Premium
  • Sunday, 14 Aug 2016

I STILL vividly remember the day I met a “monk” at the gate of my university.

He stopped me as I was cycling after a long day of studying and offered me some free books on his religious beliefs.

After browsing through a few of the titles he carried, I selected one that seemed like a good introduction. 

As I was about to mount my bike again, he asked me if I was inclined to make a gift to cover the costs of printing. 

With the book in my hands, I felt compelled to give back and parted with a few notes, which I typically do less easily.

The word reciprocity comes from the Latin reciprocus, which means moving back and forth. But a more common definition would be: “I scratch your back, if you scratch mine”.

It is part of human nature to feel indebted to those who give to us, and the urge to return a favour is hard-wired in our brains. 

People are inclined to be nicer and more collaborative in response to friendly actions, such as a complement or a freebie. 

When you invite people into your home, they are very likely to reciprocate and invite you into their home in return. This is very natural and helps to build communities and strengthen ties.

Companies have understood this as well and are using it to their own advantage. 

Robert Cialdini called reciprocity one of the six most powerful ways to influence people’s behaviour. 

He cites research in which restaurant tips increased by 3% when visitors received a mint with their bill from their waiter. When the waiter added two mints to the bill, the tips even increased by 14%! 

In another research, people who were given a can of cola out of generosity were more likely to return the favour by buying lottery tickets. 

Regardless of whether they liked the person or not, they felt obligated to do so. 

In a third experiment, people that received a hand-written note were more likely to comply with the instructions than the ones who received a typed note, as the hand-written one showed more effort from the note-giver.

When reciprocity is exercised in a business context, be aware that companies are appealing to a fundamental urge to return a favour in order to sell their products. 

Once you realise this, it becomes easier to politely decline the unwanted gift and free yourself from the urge to return the favour.

Mark Reijman is co-founder and managing director of http://www.comparehero.my/ dedicated to increasing financial literacy and to help you save time and money by comparing all credit cards, loans and broadband plans in Malaysia.


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