Dr Robert Cialdini

This post is part one of this six-part article about Dr. Robert Cialdini’s six weapons of influence. In each post, I address an individual “weapon” introduced by Cialdini: Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity. In this first part, we will discuss “Reciprocity.”

Cialdini: The Man Who Literally Wrote The Book On Influence

No good discussion on influence and persuasion can go very far without talking about the man who wrote the book on influence…literally.

Before retiring in 2009, Dr. Robert Cialdini was the Regents’ Professor of Psychology and W.P. Carey Distinguished Professor of Marketing at Arizona State University. His book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, was first published in 1984 and is one of the seminal works on persuasion in marketing (and in life).

Cialdini identifies six weapons of influence, by which he means six behavioral triggers that tend to induce automatic and predictable compliance. They are Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity.

There are several excellent blog posts on this subject, all taking the weapons of influence and talking about them from a different angle:

PersuasiveWeb talks about the weapons in terms of increasing site conversions and downloads.

Social Media Examiner and Web Marketing Savvy apply the weapons to understanding social media.

Infuse asks how we can tell the quality of an influencer.

Shae Baxter reviews the book from the point of view of never getting duped again.

I’m going to discuss each weapon individually. Here we go.

Weapon number one: “Reciprocity”: the old give and take …and take

If you receive value from someone, you will feel a definite impulse to give value back. Why do you think men don’t mind paying for the dinner and the movie?

Cialdini’s “reciprocity” is the impulse we feel to return the favor after we are helped by someone, or given value. That impulse not only inspires us to give back in equal measure, but may in fact compel us to give back more value than we received in the first place.

Strategy Insight is a blog with very extensive summaries of Cialdini’s “weapons,” and I wanted to be sure to feature their summary on Reciprocity, FYI.

I Want To Buy The World a Coke

Cialdini tells the story about a researcher bringing an unwitting test subject a Coke from the vending machine, when he wasn’t expecting it. In context, it seemed like a thoughtful gesture. Later on, the tester then asked the grateful recipient to help him out by purchasing $5 worth of raffle tickets (the coke only cost $.50). The compliance rates were much higher than for the control group, who did not receive a friendly Coke first.

Anytime you receive value for free in the marketing world, it is usually trying to invoke Cialdini’s “Reciprocity” trigger. This is why marketers give massive amounts of product away “free.” This is why dating includes flowers and gifts.

This is why state and federal representative tend to vote in a manner favorable to their largest contributors. If you have scratched my back, I feel as though I should scratch yours in kind.

This is also how negotiations work. One party has to concede something first, or there is no negotiation. But fundamentally the first to concede is expecting to receive an equally valuable concession from the other.

Russian Into More Concessions

In You Can Negotiate Anything, Herb Cohen wrote about the “Soviet” style of negotiation (written in the 80’s), wherein each good-faith concession from one party would be met by…no counter concession at all. This is a tactic North Korea employs to this day, by the way. Everyone who negotiates with them feels used and ripped off, but they typically get everything they want because they don’t share our “give-to-get” psychology.

Cialdini also talks about a concession that isn’t really a concession, but makes you feel like you have to reciprocate anyway. The simplest example is when I take a product I’m trying to sell at $50, and I arrange the price tag so that it shows $100 with a line through it, and $50 written in under it.

Any kind of sale or price reduction is an attempt at triggering reciprocity, but you can also start with a non-serious offer and then “come down” to the deal you had anticipated giving all along, like a car dealer. This response will trigger whenever you feel like you’re being given value, regardless of whether you actually are being given value.

Reciprocity doesn’t just have to apply to material value, and in fact, most often, it does not. In a recent post on self-esteem, I made the comment that, “Every interaction you have with anyone you know is either asserting higher status or trying to get something by conceding status.”

This concept of getting something by conceding status is fascinating. Listen very closely the next time anyone defers to you, treats you to something, or deliberately raises you up in any way. What are they looking to receive back? If it’s not money or business, then it’s usually some form of validation or approval.

How many times have you heard any of these?…

– “Can I have three bucks to get on the bus? Okay, then just whatever you have?”

“Here’s your free lightsaber, now will you please come with me to Alderon and risk your neck?”

– “You have already won one of these great prizes! Come to collect it at our free timeshare seminar…”

– “Well, let me see what I can do to shave a little off this monthly payment.”

– “I’m sorry we don’t have exactly what you’re looking for. Let me throw in a discount…”

– “Try it free for 30 days! If you’re not satisfied, you’re under no obligation.”

– “We’d like you to accept this flower from the Church of Religious Consciousness…would you like to make a donation?” (stole that from Airplane)


Okay, your turn. How have you seen Cialdini’s “Reciprocity” used in everyday life? Have you or has one of your friends ever given back a little more than they felt like giving or bought something because someone gave them something first?

Continue on to Part 2: Commitment and Consistency…

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