Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Scratch my Back, I'll Scratch Yours

Reciprocity -- Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours
Help another, and they'll [be more likely] help you.
(Source: Regis-AND from Deviant Art)

The amazing social power of Reciprocity.

#2 In the Series "Applied Social Psychology"

by Leo Walsh

What makes Cognitive Science and Social Psychology fascinating to me is that we are very much "hard wired" to behave in almost scripted ways. There are itches that, try as we may, we have to scratch. Some of it is how we were raised, but a solid majority seems to be inherited. 

Arizona State University psychologist dubs one of these tendencies "Reciprocity." Which is just a fancy way of saying "One good turn deserves another." Or, "Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Regardless of the content, if a person does you a good turn, you are much more likely to comply with a request from them. Because we seem to maintain an internal "tit for tat" scorecard.

This is great under normal circumstances. But people can use this knowledge to exploit our better natures. This article examines Reciprocity in some depth.

I. The case of the Hare Krisna's

In his famous book on social psychology, Influence, Dr. Cialdini uses the case of the Hare Krisnas to illustrate the Reciprocity Principle.

The Hare Krisnas -- popular name for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) --  are Hindu religion based upon that country's ages deep religious traditions. It became popular with many Westerners during the late 60's. For instance, former Beatles' member George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord," is a hymn to Lord Krisna.

However, most people in America and Britain found the Krisna's religion foreign. This posed serious fundraising issues for ISKCON. That was before, of course, the group stumbled upon an ingenious way to increase it's haul.

It went like this....
  1. A group of devotees would gather in a public place, typically an airport.
  2. They would approach a person, and give the passer-by a flower. They would insist. "It's a gift," and refuse to take it back
  3. After they "gave" the "gift," the Krisna Member would proffer their top jar. 
  4. As a result, their donations increased markedly, allowing ISKCON to purchase several large communal farms.
Notice that few "donors" supported the Krisna religion. Even fewer knew who they were. Most found them a nuisance. In fact, the comedy classic Airplane spoofs their tactice, where Robert Stack fights through a phalanx of Krisnas and other groups collecting alms.

II. Dennis Regan's experiment on returning a favor

And yet they gave. Why? Cialdini calls this type of knee-jerk reaction to social stimuli "Click-whirr."

Which leads us to a rather famous experiment in social psychology by Dennis Regan (now at Cornell) which illustrates how effective giving a gift is in getting others to reciprocate. As usual in social psychology experiments, the set up is a sort of clever, ethical "con-job."

In the "Experimental Group" (AKA the Con)

  1. The set up: Regan had subjects (AKA the "Mark" or "Patsy") believe they were in an “art appreciation” experiment with a partner, who was really Regan’s assistant (AKA "plant"). 
  2. The "Plant" disappears for a two-minute break and bring back a soft drink for the "Mark." 
  3. After the art experiment was through, the "Plant" asks the subject to buy raffle tickets from him. 

In the "Control Group"

The assistant behaved in exactly the same manner, but did not buy the subject a drink.


  1. The subjects who had received the favor, a soft drink, bought more raffle tickets than those in the control group... even though they hadn’t asked for the drink to begin with! 
  2. Regan also had the subjects fill out surveys after they finished the experiment and found that whether they personally liked the assistant or not had no effect on how many tickets they bought
  3. The "Marks" tended to pay more for the lottery ticket than the cost of the soft drink.
  4. Regan concluded that the conned "Mark" felt an intense emotional burden to repay the other, regardless of the value of the initial gift.  This caused some to overcompensate with more than what was given originally. 
Here is a link to Regan's seminal 1971 study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The Moral of the story?

Understanding these automatic responses makes it clear that, in general, we should turn down that "free samples." Consider.
  1. Gillette mails you, at considerable expense, a "free" razor. Their objective is to sell you replacement blades--even though the gift feels like a personal interaction. 
  2. My gym offers a month's free membership. Of which most do not cancel. And when you do, you may feel guilty. That free month was so nice of them...
Hint: Both businesses do not "care." These are not gifts proper. Keep this in mind. These are purely marketing moves, leveraging our built-in behavioral tendencies  

This does not mean that the intentions of the marketers is bad. It's just to empower you "see behind the veil." And not be manipulated into buying something that you do not need. And it can also help you get influence others into seeing things your way.p.

III. "Can I Buy You a Drink?"

I hate to sound old, but I do have to say that students these days have it great -- though I wouldn't say "easy.". But there are so many tools out there to help people make sense of materials.

With that said, I use this video a lot while introducing the concept of reciprocity to sales associates that report to me. It's well produced, with a lively soundtrack. And uses a situation everyone is familiar with--being at a singles' bar, and approaching, or being approached, another and asking "Can I get you a drink?"

The Power of Reciprocity from zach davis on Vimeo.

Other installments in the "Applied Social Psychology Series"

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