What is the rule of Reciprocity?

Reciprocity is one of the most prevalent principles of influence in human culture, so much so that it’s likely you abide by this rule several times a day without even considering it.

Wielded in the right way Reciprocity can be an effective tool for good and in some cases a trap to watch out for. Put simply, Reciprocity is: ‘You do something for me and I will do something for you in return’.

It’s likely you have taken part in this dynamic. Perhaps you have had the door held open for you at the office and so you hold open the next door open for the person who obliged you. Perhaps you have purchased a coffee for a friend who recently shouted you for lunch. There are tonnes of examples everyday of this principle in action. So where does this innate desire to reciprocate come from?

An evolutionary perspective

In harder times when resources were scarce, trading some food, tools or effort in the knowledge that you would later be repaid in your time of need was not only a sensible thing to do – It could mean you survive. Some argue that the rule of Reciprocity could have been a critical factor in what caused Human society successfully develop and persist.

Needs more…

Manipulation of the rule

Like any power the rule of Reciprocity can be used for good or evil. The skill with this rule is to offset the Deed to Duty, ensuring that you extract a Duty that outweighs your Deed. These are some examples I have noticed.

Reciprocity for Good

Every day when I buy a train ticket at the station I will approach the booth and greet the attendant with a phrase like: ‘ Hi, How are you doing?’ and wait for an answer. This is genuine interest, and I have noted that showing this harmless concern however fleeting for the ticket teller’s well being improves the speed, politeness and sense of rapport significantly.

Often the teller will also provide me with the time and platform of the next train and has even recommended me an alternative option, saving me half the cost when all I did was show some interest in him personally.

But isn’t that just being polite? And isn’t he just doing his job? – Yes, it just so happens that not many people are polite in this way. So doing this gives me more control over getting what I want, quicker and with a better feeling. It also brightens the day of my server which makes me feel good.

Let’s face it, people can choose to be unhelpful if they are having a bad day!

Reciprocity for Evil

If you are an agreeable type, or a particularly compassionate person, you may need to be cautious of people and companies who will take advantage of Reciprocity.

A scam I have witnessed in person involved a salesman knocking on doors with the offer of money off pizza vouchers. Once the mark accepts the vouchers, the salesman blasts into a forceful sales pitch. Having already accepted his free gift, agreeable people find it hard to resist offering some kind of reciprocation – Normally in the form of signing up for a service they don’t want!

How can reciprocity be used in an interface?

The rule of Reciprocity is the same online as in person, with a few caveats.

Have you ever seen one of those modal pop-up boxes offering you 10% Off and all you have to do is provide your email address? This is a classic online use of reciprocity. When you look at the Deed to Duty of this offer – Real money off for a simple email address.. It seems like (and maybe is) a good idea. What many don’t know is that an email address is calculated to be worth $1 per month to people who use them to sell you products or trade in email addresses.

The general rule of giving something for free before asking for something back works well in person because there is a social convention to adhere to in the immediacy. Online we may not feel that social pressure. This is bad if you want to elicit a reciprocal response, but remember – You do have the advantage of not being there in person as well. Your client can come back to your online shop as many times and at anytime they like whereas in person, you may only get one shot.


Reciprocity is a powerful tool that has primal roots, because of this it is hard for us to resist it’s influence. Used for good, Reciprocity can be positive for the Influencer and the Influencee – Helping to build mutually beneficial relationships and grease the wheels of transactions.

When we notice Reciprocity being used to manipulate in a potentially negative way, we can flag these instances and avoid them.