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Reciprocity Principle

Reciprocity Principle Definition

The Reciprocity Principle describes the human tendency to be more likely to want to give something back after something is received, whether that be a favour, gift, invitation, etc. Sociologists explain this psychological principle by the sense of obligation or indebtedness we automatically feel when someone does something for us because of the social norms that govern our relationships. From a young age, we are socially “trained” to feel as though we are indebted to people who act in our favour. This activates a “give-give” reaction in us that motivates the desire, or even presumed obligation, to always “return a favour”.

An example of this might be when someone buys you a Christmas gift simply because you gave them one: they feel compelled to do so based on the ingrained Reciprocity Principle. Inversely, the Reciprocity Principle can also act in negative situations, meaning that if someone acts wrongly towards you, you are likely to feel a compulsion to do the same to them, even if this would go against your usual character. In both cases, the principle is the same: you adjust your behaviour in relation to that of someone else’s to maintain this “give-give” societal norm.

The Reciprocity Principle has many sales tactic applications. For example, it is the root of the “rejection-then-retreat” sales technique that consists of making a request that will likely never be accepted and then, once rejected, making a more reasonable request that will then be – hopefully – accepted by your customer as they know you have made a concession so they feel compelled to also make one. In web marketing, strategies that give something for free to start with in order to hook a customer in and motivate them to want to give something back are also based on the Reciprocity Principle, as are content marketing strategies that rely on giving customers useful and interesting information before asking them for anything in return.

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