Say No to That Free Sample! The Rule of Reciprocity

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There are little tricks businesses use to get us to buy.

Some are pretty obvious, like sales and coupons.

Others are more subtle and nefarious, and may prey on the very good spirit of our human nature. A tad dramatic? Maybe not.

Recall those free address labels from the Disabled American Veterans? In the 1970s, they decided to send potential donors personalized labels in the mail, while soliciting donations.  Their generous approach? They told people to keep the labels even if they didn’t make a donation. After they did this, the number of people who made contributions nearly doubled—jumping from 18% to 35%.

Why was this marketing tack so successful? Because of a little phenomenon called the rule of reciprocity.

It’s not the end of the world if you end up donating to a great cause, but chances are you’ve been suckered into buying some random stuff you don’t need because of this really powerful psychological phenomenon.

Rule of Reciprocity

The Rule of Reciprocity: The Law of Give and Take

Made popular by Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” the rule of reciprocity is the deeply ingrained human instinct to repay a debt.

According to Steve Martin, who co-authored the book “Yes! 50 Secrets From the Science of Persuasion with Cialdini, the rule of reciprocity is fundamental to human nature. “Every culture and ethnicity trains its children to abide by the rule of give and take. If someone gives something to us, we feel obligated to repay that debt. This rule operates not only with people you know, but also with strangers.”

This is why when someone offers you a free bottle of water, a free sample, a free makeover, a free chocolate—well, it’s not really for free.  The marketers realize that accepting this swag will trigger a niggling urge inside you to repay this debt.  You may not be aware of it, but it’s there and in full effect.  Numerous studies have shown this.

The “Coca-Cola” Experiment

One of the first and most famous studies on the rule of reciprocity was the famous “Coca-Cola” experiment conducted by Professor Dennis Regan at Cornell University in 1971.  In this experiment, subjects thought they were evaluating art.  Regan’s assistant, “Joe,” would leave at the room at the same time for each subject, but in some cases he returned with a can of Coke, saying “I asked him [the experimenter] if I could get myself a Coke, and he said it was okay, so I bought one for you, too.”  At the end of the experiment, Joe asked the subjects if they would buy a raffle ticket from him to help him win a prize.  The tickets were a quarter each.

The subjects who received a Coke from Joe bought twice as many raffle tickets as the ones who hadn’t received a Coke from him. What’s more, they paid far more than the value of the Coke.

There are many other examples of this. Behavioral scientist David Strohmetz found that including a couple of free mints with diners’ bills increased tips by up to 23%. The Hare Krishna employed this strategy successfully by giving people a free red flower before asking for a donation (they tried other gifts like pamphlets and cards, but found flowers worked best)—helping them build a billion-dollar enterprise. In an almost silly example of how strong this effect is, sociology professor Phil Kunz sent 578 Christmas cards to random strangers from the address book.  He received 117 cards back from people who had no idea who he was (some even included long notes and photos of family members and pets).

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Don’t Be Fooled

“A feeling of obligation induces us to reciprocate,” says Regan. “I think this is true the world over.”  While this may be a perfectly moral exchange in a social or even charitable setting, it’s another matter it comes to businesses manipulating you into spending unnecessarily.  “Businesses are absolutely aware of this strategy,” says Martin. “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t generate returns for them.”

These are the well-researched facts about the rule of reciprocity:

  • The return gesture often outweighs the freebie. “The response is often disproportionate,” says Martin. You get a free chocolate and a bottle of water, you decide to buy the expensive necklace. You get a ten cent mint, you increase your tip by a few dollars.
  • The moment of the gift is when we are most susceptible. “We want to do the “first available thing” to even the score,” says Regan.  We’ll take the first action presented to us to get rid of that uncomfortable feeling of owing someone.  That’s why salespeople will strike when the iron is hot and hit you up for that sale.
  • Targeted and personalized gifts, and the element of surprise, are key. Studies have shown the more personal and targeted the gift is, and the more of a surprise and delight it is, the more effective the trigger. So a free lotion sample received anonymously in the mail is not as strong as a salesperson smiling at you and saying, “You look like you could use a piece of Belgian chocolate,” and handing one to you.

Tips From the Researchers Themselves

What do Martin and Regan suggest you do to protect yourself from these strategies, which Martin goes as far as to deem “exploitative”?

“The feeling of obligation may dissipate over time,” says Regan. The feeling of obligation is strongest at the moment of the exchange.  So Regan suggests letting time pass.

Martin agrees: “Take a break, even if just for a few minutes. Ask ‘Is this sample really worthy of my fifty dollars?’  Recognize how this principle is activated.  Or refuse the gift to begin with.”

Or enjoy the sample, guilt-free, knowing that it’s simply another marketing tactic.

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  • Anonymous

    I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to read this article. I receive tons of address labels, calendars, greeting cards, tablets, etc. from charitable organizations. For years I felt guilty if I didn’t “donate”. Then a couple of years ago, we had big time financial problems and I could no longer give anything. I wrote letters to all of the charities asking them to stop sending these things to no avail.
    Now I no longer have to feel guilty. Thank you

  • Susieorr

    This is one of the reasons I hate coupons!  You ever have it when you need it.  You know it is somewhere, you just don’t know where…..

  • Fritzi

    Gee, I am a business and didn’t know this! Think I’ll try it and see what happens.

  • Shiri

    My spouse and I employ this to our advantage by getting the freebies (how many banks offer you bonuses for opening an account?), then cancelling the service at the first possible moment.

  • Guest

    While this is interesting and eye-opening, I haven’t been falling for these scam-like deals. It’s always good to be a little sociopathic.

  • Savannah

    I agree. There’s always a catch 22. Most people here the word free and jump on board.

  • CDP

    My previous boss use to always say, “Nothing is ever free, that is an economic certainty”. I believe the Law of Reciprocity validates her saying. As humans, we are taught to give and take, so it is natural for us to want to return the favor when someone gives us something.

    The “Coca-Cola” Experiment is an interesting one I had not heard before. What I find most interesting is that I am guilty of feeling the need to repay people. If someone had provided me with a free coke, I would also feel the need to buy the raffle tickets. Just as when I go out to eat, if the waiter provides me with say a free appetizer I typically tip more than normal because I feel as though he treated me special so I should return the treatment.

    I also find it interesting that the article suggests that the need to return the favor diminishes when the person in not in front of you offering the free gift. I would
    completely agree with this because if I were to receive something in mail I would
    not feel so obligated to return the favor. It is almost as though the presence of the individual intensifies your guilty conscience that makes you repay the favor.

    This article made me realize things about myself I had never realized. I am guilty of following all the examples and having the need to repay the favor to people. I guess I always did it subconsciously and never realized until it was pointed out to me.

  • Guest

    As a consumer, I love samples. People like the fact that it’s “free”, but also because it gives us an opportunity to try the product before we buy it. Samples also provide a way to introduce people to try something new. There are few reasons why I think free sample strtegy is good. First of all, Introduce new products: People want to try before making decisions, especially when if it’s a new product. Free samples are a common marketing strategy for introducing new products.Secondary,understand customers’ demand, Companies could get more advices from consumer by give out the samples,it is not only introduce the new product but also can get improved.

    Sometimes give out the samples is important,for example, cosmetics samples is importants for consumers. Consumer has differnt skin type and they should got the samples before they buy the products. Because only from try the samples and they could avoid to get allergic skin.

    Do not say NO to free samples! To be a consumer, we have the right to know how is the products’ quality and try if it was what we were looking for.

  • yu lin lu

    As a consumer, I love samples. People like the fact that it’s “free”, but also because it gives us an opportunity to try the product before we buy it. Samples also provide a way to introduce people to try something new. There are few reasons why I think free sample strtegy is good. First of all, Introduce new products: People want to try before making decisions, especially when if it’s a new product. Free samples are a common marketing strategy for introducing new products.Secondary,understand customers’ demand, Companies could get more advices from consumer by give out the samples,it is not only introduce the new product but also can get improved.

    Sometimes give out the samples is important,for example, cosmetics samples is importants for consumers. Consumer has differnt skin type and they should got the samples before they buy the products. Because only from try the samples and they could avoid to get allergic skin.

    Do not say NO to free samples! To be a consumer, we have the right to know how is the products’ quality and try if it was what we were looking for………