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Everyday Psychology & Reciprocity: The Art of Give and Take


Psychological Theory: The Rule of Reciprocity

Relating to Social Psychology, the Rule of Reciprocity is fairly simple: when someone does something for you, you will return the favour. Numerous studies have been conducted to understand exactly how far we can push the idea of reciprocated behaviour and the degree to which the element of surprise and size of the favour changes our response. Overall, when an action is made to us— whether positive or negative— we will respond with a grander gesture.

The Original Experiment

Dennis Regan, in this 1971 experiment, dubbed the “Coca-Cola Experiment” used the buying of a beverage as a way of priming his subjects for a reciprocal act.  Regan’s assistant would participate in the experiment with the subject—they were thought to be evaluating art—and partway through the assistant would leave and return with a Coke.  In some instances the assistant would bring a beverage back for the subject, in others they wouldn’t.  At the “end” of the experiment the assistant asked the subject if they would buy twenty-five cent raffle tickets. Results?  On average, those who were given a Coke bought twice as many raffle tickets as those who weren’t. More than that, the cost of the raffle tickets they bought far exceeded the price of the Coke.

So, What Does That Mean For Us?

Have you ever heard the phrase “ass, gas, or grass—no one rides for free”?  Reciprocity is essentially the same principle. Whenever I drive my friends any kind of noticeable distance they offer me gas money.  Do I expect it? No, but I definitely like when they do it.  I won’t always accept their funds but, more often than not we even things out in other ways: they’ll buy my movie ticket or drink when we go to the bar.  They want to make things even, keep things at equilibrium and I do the same for them. As children we are taught that relationships are all about give-and-take. This extends to all relationships, whether they are with the salesman in the clothing store or with your partner.


 Psychological Share Baiting and Other Habitual Reciprocal Relationships

We are constantly expected to ‘return the favour’ to those around us, even if we aren’t identifying what they’ve done for us as a favour. When you’re at the grocery store and someone is giving out free samples they’re expecting you to buy the product. For every “no-obligation” sample or demo we get, companies are counting on our internal sense of duty and fairness in order to ensure that we buy what they’re selling. Since we live in a time where “keeping score” is the norm, it’s no wonder we constantly are looking to pay back our debts or be paid back for the good we’ve done for others.

I worked in a restaurant throughout my undergrad degree and we employed the same idea—they gave out chips and salsa to every table within two minutes of sitting down. And, when we were busy and had people waiting, the hostess was expected to bring baskets of chips and salsa to waiting guests. Why does that matter? You’re much less likely to leave if you feel that you’ve already been given something. Internally, we think “hey, they already brought me the first part of my meal, so I can’t leave now”. This makes that 30-minute wait for a table more bearable, but effectively ensures that you can’t get frustrated with your unnecessarily long wait time and leave.

The giving of small gifts or the doing of small favours instantly triggers the recipient to be more compliant in later requests. This does not mean that anyone who gives your something is going to expect you to return the favour two-fold but, keep an eye out: this also can be triggered with negative actions, creating a spiral of negativity. As easily as we are susceptible to responding to the good, we are just as liable to fall prey to the “eye for an eye” mentality of retribution.

Keep your head up. Pay attention to what the people around you are doing for you and to you. Only do things that you want to. And, if you’re going to keep score, only score the good things and, when you reach equilibrium: stop, otherwise you’ll become so entrenched in your desire to make the playing field equal that you’ll be consistently disappointed.