Say No to That Free Sample! The Rule of Reciprocity

Say No to That Free Sample! The Rule of Reciprocity

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.

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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