Gift Giving Psychology: The Norm of Reciprocity
by Heath Shive
In the 1970s, the Hare Krishna were experts at collecting donations. They looked strange, would chant in airports, and had a tendency to "weird" people out. So, how did they do it?
They used the psychology of the norm of reciprocity.
So this Christmas, how can you protect yourself from this psychological trick?
Let's find out.
To the science of gift giving!
The Norm of Reciprocity: Society’s Guilt Trip
The Hare Krishna were a very visible religious movement in the 1970s, especially in airports. When it comes to the art of persuasion, you wouldn’t expect a chanting, orange-clad, stubble-headed pagan to be an expert - but their organization made millions!
It was the famous psychologist Robert Cialdini who discovered that they used a powerful technique called the norm of reciprocity.
But first, what is a "norm"? As described in the fascinating book Age of Propaganda, a norm is a specific guide to conduct. A norm is how society tells you to act normally – like tipping 15% at a restaurant, sneezing into your elbow, or not cutting in line.
The norm of reciprocity is simply this: If I give you something, you are obligated to give me something in return. The norm of reciprocity regulates exchange in a culture.
The Power of Flowers
Psychologist Robert Cialdini – who spent hours at the airport observing Krishnas in action – discovered that the sect used the norm of reciprocity to “guilt trip” people into giving money.
They would simply give you a flower.
The Krishna member would spy a “victim,” who would suddenly find a flower pressed into his or her hand. If the target attempted to give it back, the Krishna would refuse by saying, “It is our gift to you.” Only then did they request a donation.
The gift of a flower established a feeling of obligation. The targeted “victim” would feel compelled to donate – thus fulfilling the norm of reciprocity.
The Power of a Free Coke
In fact – even if you dislike someone – the norm of reciprocity can work. A study by Dennis Regan published 1971 illustrates this. In his experiment, two male students were surveyed for their “aesthetic judgments.” However one of the students was an accomplice who intentionally either made himself likable or unlikable.
After five minutes, sometimes the accomplice would leave and come back with two Cokes…offering the other Coke to the other student. At the end of the study, the accomplice asked the real student if he would like to buy some raffle tickets.
The results showed that when the accomplice gave the other student a Coke, he sold nearly twice as many tickets compared with no Coke – whether the accomplice was likable or not!
So beware of gifts! Those “free” cheese samples at the grocery, those “free” mailing labels from a nonprofit, and that “free” drink from someone in a bar. Beware that invitation to a distant cousin’s or college friend’s wedding. Beware of those “free” pill samples given by a pharmaceutical rep.
Because every gift gives twice - it gives a gift...and an obligation.
The norm of reciprocity is supposed to establish a fair exchange for a better society. Ironically, the norm of reciprocity can be used to cheat people too.
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Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Rev.ed. Collins, 2007.
Pratkanis, Anthony, & Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1991.
Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.