Reciprocation (Weapons of Influence, part 1 of 3)

The cover of Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is adorned with a quote that says "For marketers, this book is among the most important books written in the last ten years." That’s probably true, but it’s a little troubling that there is no quote that says "For consumers, this book is among the most important books written in the last then years." In many ways, Cialdini is writing for consumers, not marketers. Each chapter discusses a "weapon of influence", the way it is used against us and finish with a subsection called "How to Say No" (to this particular "weapon of influence"). I think every reader will recognize each weapon, will feel that you already know that is used against you, and will eventually think of a situation where, even with that knowledge, you got sucked in.

So here’s a rundown on the most potent weapons of influence.


Someone offers me a gift and I want to offer a gift back. Someone does me a favor and I want to return it. That’s a good thing. When my neighbor Bruce offers to take me to the Fresno airport, two hours away, that makes me feel not just a bit obligated, but also like I must be a a pretty good person because why else would he offer? So that’s an obvious gain for me. But when he needs to go to Fresno and pick up his car and I help him out, I not only feel I’ve repaid my obligation, but I again feel like I must be a prett good person, because I’m doing something nice for a friend. I don’t think this is some atypical egomania, but rather pretty normal, though 99% of the time subconscious. We like to do for others and have others do for us and that makes our lives richer. So far so good.

But savvy salesmen and fund raisers will use that against us. The salesman offers us a free gift and we feel like we need to reciprocate by helping him out. So we buy something. You would be surprised how effective this is. When the Disabled American Veterans asked for money, they got an 18% response rate. When they sent out the same appeal with the "free gift" of address labels, they got a 35% response rate (p. 31). The Hare Krishna’s used giving a flower away to similar effect.

Even more subtle, someone asks something onerous of us: "Would you commit to spending one night per week at the homeless shelter for two years?" We say no, and the person then makes a concession: "Could you help out for three hours on Wednesday night?" Studies show that the concession tends to make us feel obligated and the compliance rate soars compared to a direct request to help out for three hours on Wednesday night. Another version is where you go in to buy a camera lens, pool table or an appliance and say you’re looking for a basic version. The salesman starts you off with the most expensive, premium version just to show you what real quality is. Then he backs off to the mid-priced version to show you something more in line with what you want. In this scenario, which invokes both the reciprocal concession and the contrast rule ($500 now seems cheap compared to the $5000 lens). This has commonly been shown to dramatically increase sales (p. 47).

So the truly savvy ask for something they never really expect to get anyway, and then "settle" for what is really their true goal in the first place.

How to Say No. Recognize these practices for what they are — neither gracious nor nefarious, but simple sales techniques employed for the purpose of making a profit. Consider the "free gift" like any other form of advertising. Just because a company spent 26 million dollars to show you an ad during the Super Bowl doesn’t obligate you to anything. Nor does a free home inspection or a free trial of hand lotion. It’s just business. Ask yourself, what would I do if I had not received the free home inspection from them? You would call around and get prices around town, and so you still should.

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