The Rule of Reciprocation: Why We Feel Obligated to Return the Favor

The rule of reciprocation is one of the most powerful tools of influence. This rule essentially says that if someone gives something to us, we feel obligated to repay that debt. How many times have you borrowed something and felt obliged to return in in better condition? How many times have you received a gift and felt obligated to give something in return? How many times have you received an act of kindness and felt obligated to repay that person with an act of kindness? How many times have you asked for a favor and then felt obligated to repay that person with a favor? That is the rule of reciprocation. The three persuasion tactics that enhance the rule of reciprocation are listed below.

The Not-So-Free-Sample

A strong marketing procedure that relies on the rule of reciprocation is the not-so-free sample. This persuasion tactic is based on providing the consumer with a free sample of the product. When one receives the free gift, an automatic response to reciprocate ensues, and one feels obliged to purchase more of the product.

The Rule of Reciprocity Can Trigger Unequal Exchanges

The rule of reciprocation allows a person to choose the nature of the favor and the debt-canceling favor. As a result, one can easily be manipulated into an unfair exchange by those who wish to exploit the rule. For example, say you need your car jump started, so your friend came to help. After your car starts up, you tell your friend that if they ever need a favor to let you know. About a month later, your friend comes and asks to borrow your car for an afternoon. Based on the rule of reciprocation, you would feel obligated to say yes. This is an unequal exchange that people often get manipulated into.


The rejection-then-retreat tactic says to increase chances of compliancy make a large request followed by a smaller request; the smaller request is actually the desired result. When the initial request is denied, one feels obliged to comply with the smaller, compromised request. An example of this is when your friend asks you to drive the carpool for the week, even though it is their week to drive. You know you can’t drive the carpool for the entire week, so you say no. Then your friends asks if you can drive just one day that week. You feel bad for saying no the first time, so you feel obligated to compromise and to say yes to drive just one day.

Defense Against the Rule

The best defense is to reject the rule. If you feel the initial favor is a trick to get you to oblige to something, then reject the rule completely. Give without expecting to receive. Rather than being exploited by the rule, it is better to accept the offers and favors for what they are. Understanding what one is obliging to, prevents one from being exploited. To engage in this arrangement is to participate fairly in the “honored network of obligation.” Understanding what you’re committing to when you take gifts or favors means you understand that you’re obligated to return the favor in the future.


Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon      (Pearson Education). ISBN13: 978-0-205-60999-4 or ISBN10: 0-205-60999-6 softcover.

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