Nov 09, 2021


The following post is a summary of a chapter from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. The book discusses 7 principles of persuasion, one of which is Reciprocation.

The rule of reciprocation says that we should try to repay what another person has provided us. As social creatures, it is an urge that most people are susceptible to and is often exploited by those trying to sell us something.

One application is the free sample. In a California candy shop, researchers examined the difference in sales based on whether a customer was given a free piece of candy when they walked into the store. They found that receiving the gift made recipients 42 percent more likely to buy something.

To magnify this force even more, it is found that when the first gift given to a potential customer is personalized in some way, that they are even more likely to be compelled to buy something.

Besides just repaying favors, another consequence of the reciprocation rule is an obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us. 

This is exploited in the rejection-then-retreat or door-in-the-face tactic that many sales professionals use. It works like this: suppose you want me to agree to a certain request. One way to increase the chances I will comply is first to make a larger request of me, one that I will most likely turn down. Then, after I have refused, you make the smaller request that you were really interested in all along.

A similar strategy is the larger-than-smaller-request: after being exposed to the price of a more expensive item, a less expensive item seems even smaller by comparison. This is often why when you go into a store to buy a suit, they will sell you the most expensive pieces first so that the accessories don’t seem as expensive when you add them on. 

Another example of where this sort of anchoring is used is in restaurants: they will often have very expensive bottles of wine on the menu, not intended for the purpose of customers buying them, but to make the bottles they intend to sell seem more affordable by comparison.

It is important to note that people are sensitive to these sorts of tricks so it’s necessary to be subtle in how you might apply any of these strategies for them to work. A negotiation in which your initial offer is outrageous could totally backfire.