Can reciprocation be influenced?

Much research has evidenced the law of reciprocation (if I do something for you, you’re more likely to do something for me in return) but how much can reciprocation be influenced? And does the amount of effort that is put into the initial activity have a subsequent effect on the likelihood and the amount of reciprocity that is given in return?

Experiment setup

An experimenter held a door open for a participant in either a low-effort or high-effort condition. Total participants 194.

  • Low effort condition: The experimenter walked in front of the participant and propped the door open with his shoulder, while looking down at his mobile phone.
  • High-effort condition: The experimenter held the door open with his free hand while the participant exited the building before them. They also looked and smiled at the participant whilst doing so.

The results

  • People were more likely to thank the experimenter in the high-effort condition. In the low-effort condition, 50% of participants thanked the experimenter versus 84.9% in the high-effort condition. 
  • Verbal thanks was not a predictor of subsequent helping behaviour.
  • The experimenter dropped pens onto the floor after holding open the door for the person. In total, 27% of participants helped the experimenter to pick up the pens. Of these, most (64%) had took part in the high-effort condition, with 19% being in the low-effort condition.
  • The likelihood of participants’ helping to pick up the pens varied with physical distance. The experimenter waited for the participant to walk a specific number of steps out of the building before dropping the pens. Participants were more likely to help, the less steps they had taken. Participants in the high-effort condition helped in greater proportion at all distances when compared to the low-effort condition.

In Summary

Participants verbally thanked and reciprocated more frequently in the high-effort condition.

How to use this

Rather than simply offering your customers a discount or freebie, think of what you could offer that would be perceived by them as having taken greater effort. 

Read more

Fox GR, Araujo HF, Metke MJ, Shafer C and Damasio A (2015) How Does the Effort Spent to Hold a Door Affect Verbal Thanks and Reciprocal Help?