Riding on reciprocity

| Updated on June 21, 2018 Published on June 21, 2018

Often, businesses lure customers with incentives that the latter feel obliged to recompense

The rule of reciprocity is a basic law of social psychology that says we must pay back for what we receive. While some are straightforward, like the survey that pays you a dollar for answering questions or the free research article offer which then asks you to fill a form for the download of the full report, there are others that are subtle and you are not ever aware of what they have done to you.

Marketing has always deployed this to persuade the audience to do something. A good example is perhaps that practised by Hare Krishna folks in the US. Dr Robert Cialdini in his book Influence talks about this. The Hare Krishna folks would walk down a street or in airports and surprise strangers by giving them a rose or a book. A few metres away, another Hare Krishna follower would seek a donation and the person would donate, generously. Later many wondered how they had donated so much to a stranger. Taking the flower obligated one to donate, without realising why. This was just tapping into the fundamental principle of human psychology – give back when you receive something unsolicited.

People from all cultures feel a compelling need to repay acts of kindness, appreciation, gifts or favours received or invitations to parties. From an evolution point of view, reciprocal behaviour helped groups stay together through acts of give and take. This human tendency has survived because the earliest communities encouraged and honoured this obligation within the clan. The interdependencies in the community meant this rule had to be followed.

Reciprocity is a powerful tool to influence people. The cabbie who opens the door for you, the waiter who serves you with a smile, the holiday company that gives you free tickets to a show are all using this technique.

Of late, I saw two good examples of habit-forming services. Ola recently offered me a ₹2,500 credit for two weeks. On the surface, a good move to hook me to continue riding Ola. But when you dig deeper, you can’t but applaud the way they have hooked me. In real life, when someone helps you, you “owe” the person and become indebted to them for the favour.

This was no different. When we don’t have to pay for two weeks after using the service, it evokes reciprocal behaviour – it builds loyalty for Ola. Uber too does something here. If you have chosen a card for payment, it does not ask for the payment until your next ride. How sweet! By doing good to you, they simply evoke a reciprocal feeling of gratitude. These hooks work on you without you being very aware of the same. That’s why it’s powerful.

When a business makes you indebted to them, they could always encash it at an appropriate time. Reciprocity is a social norm that used to influence our purchase decisions.

Do you know of any other powerful habit-forming techniques used by other companies? I would love to hear of them.

Rajasekar KS is General Manager – Marketing at

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on June 21, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor