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Techniques General persuasion > Cialdini's Six Principles > Reciprocity

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Principle: We feel obliged to give back to people who have given to us.

Give people something. Then ask for something in return. You do not need to limit your request to something of equivalent value; you can ask for things that are far bigger than what you gave.

When you give to them, make sure they know what they are getting. Talk about your desire to help them and that what you are doing is with their best interests at heart. Think also about what you can do that is of higher benefit to them and lower cost to you.


A non-profit organization gives away a pen with a request to fill in a form to make regular donations. This significantly increases returns.

A sales person does a lot of research for a customer, in the assumption that this will make the customer feel obliged to reciprocate by buying.

Home sales parties have been used to sell everything from Tupperware to erotic toys.


When prehistoric people moved from being lone hunters to living in tribes, there was a cost in doing this, as social living involves doing things for other people as well as for yourself. Out of this dilemma grew the basic principle of reciprocity, that you should help those who help you.

Gift-giving and exchange is an important part of many cultures, with formal exchanges such as at Christmas and on first meeting. Birthday presents extend the element of trust as you give a person a present on your birthday with the unspoken assumption that they will give you something in return when your birthday comes around.

Reciprocity can be more subtle than giving physical or obvious things. You can give your time, information, praise or other less tangible things. The key is that what you give is appreciated and that the person feels willing to do something in return.

Reciprocity may also be cumulative. When you regularly do small things to help people, though you may not ask for something in return each time, you still build up social credit and can ask for more significant help when you really need it.

The underlying force in reciprocity is obligation. When people do things for us, we feel obliged to repay them. The inner tension created in the gap between receiving and giving is often so powerful we will give anything in return just to reduce this discomfort.

Reciprocity is often a strong force in politics, where 'logrolling' and the exchange of favors is often rife. This is how politicians with initial good intent can become embroiled in scandal and slide into corrupt practices.

Reciprocity is also used in leadership, where the leader offers attention and kindness in return for loyalty and action. In the negative extreme, this principle has been used in cults to persuade members into mass suicide.

Once a person has repaid a favor, they often become even more open to further requests. This happens when they justify their repayment by framing this as 'helping a friend'. Now, as a friend, the persuader may ask for more.

There is often a rule which says you must repay at least what they give you. This is based in fairness, where it would be unfair of you to give less than you get. It also appears in status games, particularly when men are involved, where the relative size of the gift is taken as an indication of wealth and consequent power.

Giving first can cause problems when the other person does not feel obliged to repay the debt. When you give, you may be positioning yourself as inferior and hence only increase their perceived status. In the manner of powerful people, they may hence think themselves above social rules and feel able to not reciprocate (indeed, to do so would take them back down to your level). This happens more when the person has a sense of entitlement more than of duty.

There can also be problems where one person gives more than the other person wants to repay. This can lead to the second person feeling stressed and angry with the obligation that is being put on them. In this way a reciprocation strategy can backfire when it asks too much of the other person.

In the Door In The Face (DITF) method, you start with a big request that is naturally rejected. When you retreat to a smaller request, the reciprocation effect encourages them to return the generosity (and compensate for their unkindness) by accepting this offer.

See also

Reciprocity Norm, Exchange principle, Obligation principle, Negotiation, Theories about forecasting, Theories about groups


Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, New York: Quill


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