How the Norm of Reciprocity Works

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The norm of reciprocity sometimes referred to as the rule of reciprocity, is a social norm where if someone does something for you, you then feel obligated to return the favor.

One area where this norm is commonly employed is in the field of marketing. Marketers utilize a broad range of strategies to convince consumers to make purchases. Some are straightforward such as sales, coupons, and special promotions. Others are far more subtle and make use of principles of human psychology of which many people are not even aware.

How It Works

Have you ever felt obligated to do something for someone because they first did something for you? The norm of reciprocity is just one type of social norm that can have a powerful influence on our behavior.

Reciprocity norm operates on a simple principle: We tend to feel obligated to return favors after people do favors for us.

When your new neighbors bring over a plate of cookies to welcome you to the neighborhood, you might feel obligated to return the favor when they ask you to take care of their dog while they are on vacation.

Examples of Reciprocity in Action

Just how powerful is the norm of reciprocity? In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz conducted an experiment. He mailed out handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of him and his family to approximately 600 randomly selected people. All of the recipients of the cards were complete strangers. Shortly after mailing the cards, responses began trickling in.

Kunz received nearly 200 replies. Why would so many people reply to a complete stranger? This is the rule of reciprocity at work. Since Kunz had done something for them (sent a thoughtful note during the holiday season), many recipients felt obligated to return the favor.

More examples of reciprocity:

  • A salesperson giving a freebie to a potential customer, hoping that it will lead them to return the favor by purchasing something
  • A leader offering attention and mentorship to followers in exchange for loyalty
  • Offering customers some valuable information in exchange for signing up for future marketing offers


Such behavior has a few obvious benefits. For one thing, taking care of others helps the survival of the species.

By reciprocating, we ensure that other people receive help when they need it and that we receive assistance when we need it.

Reciprocity also allows people to get things done that they would not be able to do on their own. By working together or exchanging services, people are able to accomplish more than they would individually.

Reciprocity and Persuasion

There are a number of persuasion techniques that employ the tactic of reciprocity. These strategies are used by people who are trying to persuade you to take action or conform with a request, such as salespeople or politicians.

One of these is known as the 'that's-not-all' technique. Let's say you're shopping for a new mobile phone. The salesperson shows your phone and tells you the price, but you're still not quite sure. If the salesperson offers to add a phone case at no additional charge, you might feel like he's doing you a favor, which in turn might make you feel obligated to buy the phone.

Can You Resist Reciprocity?

In many cases, the reciprocity norm is actually a good thing. It helps us behave in socially acceptable ways and allows us to engage in a social give-and-take with the people around us. But what should you do if you are trying to overcome the urge to reciprocate, such as trying to avoid the need to purchase an item after receiving a freebie?

Some tips that can help:

  • Give it some time. Experts suggest that the urge to reciprocate is strongest immediately after the initial exchange. If you can wait, you will probably feel less pressure to return the favor.
  • Evaluate the exchange. Think about whether the favor measures up to the expected return. In many cases, the initial gift or favor is much smaller than the requested return favor.

Finally, be aware that engaging in that first reciprocal exchange can make it more likely that you'll respond to other, often bigger, requests in the future. In marketing, this is often called the "Foot in the Door" technique. Someone starts off by making a small request, and once you agree to it, they then make a much bigger request.

Understanding how the reciprocity norm influences behavior may help you better evaluate persuasive messages and requests.

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Article Sources
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  1. Nohe C, Hertel G. Transformational Leadership and Organizational Citizenship Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Test of Underlying Mechanisms. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1364.  doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01364

  2. Molm LD. The Structure of Reciprocity. Social Psychology Quarterly. 2010;(73)2:119-131.  doi:10.1177/0190272510369079

  3. Cialdini RB. Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade . Simon & Schuster. 2016.

  4. Goyal N, Miller JG. The Importance of Timing in Reciprocity: An Investigation of Reciprocity Norms Among Indians and Americans. Journal of Cross-Cultural Society. 2017;(49)3;381-403. doi:10.1177/0022022117746239

Additional Reading
  • Kunz, P. R. (1976). "Season's greetings: From my status to yours." Social Science Research, 5(3), 269–278.
  • Molm, L. "The Structure of Reciprocity." Social Psychology Quarterly April 2010
  • Zimbardo, P. G., & Leippe, M. R. (1991). The psychology of attitude change and social influence. New York: McGraw-Hill.