Reciprocity bias describes a social rule in the human culture that highlights the importance of repaying another person who provides a favor, small gift, or concession of some kind. This rule dates back to ancient times, when members of a society would share food and goods with one another, creating a network of indebtedness and fostering the health of the society. Reciprocity has become so ingrained in human culture today that people will go to great lengths to avoid being seen as a freeloader or moocher – and, subsequently, avoid potentially being shunned from a social group.
Reciprocity bias is one of the cognitive biases studied by cultural anthropologists. This is where people will create their own social reality based on the input of the situation. It will trigger the internal guilt found in reciprocity bias and “absolute need” to reciprocate in a similar manner. Positive reciprocity can be used in marketing strategies to bring customer engagement and purchases.
Robert Cialdini cites numerous examples of reciprocity in his book “Influence” – specifically, its strength in gaining a person’s compliance with a request. Cialdini describes an experiment with two participants in which one participant – who is actually an experimenter himself – leaves during a break and buys two sodas, one for himself and one for the other participant. The other participant, unaware that his friend is in cahoots with the experimenters, thanks him profusely for the beverage and feels obligated to purchase a few lottery tickets from him after he asks.
Message for Marketers:
Marketers who understand how strong of a tool reciprocity bias has become will better leverage the reciprocity principle for their own evolutionary advantage. Consider offering a free sample of your product or service – whether that’s by way of physical samples, free trials product demos, or some other special offer – to prospective customers. Even when you choose to highlight phrases such as “free of charge” or “no obligation,” the psychological needs to provide direct reciprocity will make it much tougher for customers to walk away.
By being aware of the fact that we, as humans, have not only been taught that reciprocation is of the utmost importance in any and every social interaction, but have evolved over centuries to learn to return every gift or favor with a concession of equal value, marketers can encourage greater engagement and form closer relationships with customers.