Today, you’re going to learn how adding one simple question can triple the rate of your success, how a church used flowers to exponentially multiply their fundraising campaign, how one free drink generated over a 500% return, and much more.
I’m super excited this week because we are kicking off a new miniseries within Science of Success called Weapons of Influence. This is the first in a six part series based on the bestselling book, Influence, by Robert Cialdini. If you loved that book, this will be a great refresher on the core concepts, and if you haven’t read it yet, some of this stuff is going to blow your mind.
So, what are the six weapons of influence? The first is reciprocation; the second, consistency and commitment; the third, social proof; the fourth, liking; the fifth, authority; and the sixth is scarcity. Each one of these weapons can be a powerful tool in your tool belt, and something to watch out for when others try to wield them against you. Alone, each of them can create crazy outcomes in our lives and in social situations, but together, or combined, they can result in huge impacts. Something billionaire business partner of Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, once described as ‘Lollapalooza Effects’.
Remember in episode one when we talked about the biological limits of the human mind? If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, you should absolutely go back and check it out after you listen to this one. In that episode we talked about the automatic click whirr response that gets triggered when a cognitive bias comes into play. We talked about how evolutionarily beneficial traits and behaviors can sometimes manifest themselves in ridiculous outcomes, like the example of the mother turkey taking care of a polecat, which happens to be its natural predator and enemy. These weapons of influence are exactly those kinds of cognitive biases. Now, we are really going to get into the meat of some of the most powerful cognitive biases that cause human decision making to go haywire. These weapons of influence can be used to manipulate you if you don’t know how to defend against them, and can be part of your arsenal if you learn how to harness them.
Here’s how Cialdini describes the impact of these weapons in his groundbreaking book, Influence: “Each principle has the ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic mindless compliance from people. That is a willingness to say yes without thinking first.” Don’t forget, we like to keep our discussions grounded in the science. Each of these weapons of influence are deeply rooted and verified, again and again, by experimental psychology research. In this series I will share a number of crazy, hilarious, and sometimes sad examples of that with you.
The topic today is weapon of influence number one, reciprocation. I will start with an overview of what reciprocation bias is, then we will dive into a number of wacky research studies that demonstrate this behavior in the real world, and lastly we will look at some of the practical implications of how you can use this in real life. So, what is reciprocation bias? Part of the reason these biases are so powerful is because they have been built into our minds by thousands of years of evolution, and in the vast majority of cases, were incredibly evolutionary beneficial. It’s something that has been engrained in humans since birth, and in our culture for millennia. Here’s how Cialdini describes it: “According to sociologists and anthropologists, one of the most widespread and basic norms of human culture is embodied in the rule of reciprocation. The rule requires that one person try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided. By obligating the recipient of an act to repayment in the future, the rule for reciprocation allows one individual to give something to another with confidence that it is not being lost. The sense of future obligation within the rules makes possible the development of various kinds of continuing relationships, transactions, and exchanges that are beneficial to society. Consequently, all members of the society are trained from childhood to abide by the rule or suffer serious social disapproval.”
Here’s how Cialdini defines the reciprocation rule, and note one of the terms he uses is a bit clunky. He often cites what he calls “compliance professionals”, which is essentially someone who is trying to get you to do something. Think of a salesperson, a boss, a negotiator, someone who’s trying to get you to comply with their requests. That’s why he says, “compliance practitioners”. Cialdini uses this throughout the book as a blanket term to describe those who wield the weapons of influence. Here’s another quote from Cialdini where he lays out the definition, and some of the ground rules, of reciprocation: “One favorite and profitable tactic of certain compliance professionals is to give something before asking for a return favor. The exploitability of this tactic is due to three characteristics of the rule for reciprocation. First, the rule is extremely powerful, often overwhelming the influence of other factors that normally determine compliance with a request. Second, the rule applies even to uninvited first favors, thereby reducing our ability to decide whom we wish to owe, and putting the choice in the hands of others. Finally, the rule can spur unequal exchanges. To be rid of the uncomfortable feeling of indebtedness an individual will often agree to a request for a substantially larger favor than the one he or she received.” In a nutshell, reciprocation bias is the tendency to reciprocate when someone does something for us, which makes perfect sense when you think about it, but the power of the bias really manifests itself when you think about the fact that: one, the effect still holds even when the gift is unwanted, and even when you don’t like the person giving you the gift; and two, the reciprocation often takes the form of a substantially larger gift than the original gift.
Now we’re going to dive into some of the research and see how exactly reciprocation bias impacts people in the real world, and what psychological studies have shown some of these effects can be. One of the first experiments is something that I call a ‘Coke bottle experiment’. In this experiment there was a subject in a room, and there was also an experimenter with them- his name was Joe- and they had some sort of task that they were supposed to perform. It was kind of a red herring. There was a two minute break in the middle of the study, and Joe would leave the room, and in half of the instances he would come back with nothing and they would just continue on with the experiment. In the other half he would buy two cokes and bring one back, give one to the other person and say, “Hey, there was a drink machine and I thought I would grab you a drink too,” and just gives it to them. At the end of the study, they would have Joe then ask that person to buy some raffle tickets from him. This was in the ‘70s, so he would sell them for 25 cents, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but Joe would basically say, “Hey, by the way, I’m selling these raffle tickets. I was wondering if you would be willing to buy some.” So, one of the most interesting things was that in the scenario where people- where Joe didn’t bring back anything, where he just went along with the experiment, and then at the end asked them to buy raffle tickets, there was actually a liking scale. They, after the experiment, had people rate how much they liked Joe, and basically they would give him- they would buy a certain number of raffle tickets from him based on how much they liked him on a scale. So, they would obviously have already purchased the tickets, and then they would come and say, “Okay, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you like Joe?” and they would go through a number of questions about him, and his behavior, and everything else. There was a pretty strong correlation between how much they liked him, and how many raffle tickets they would buy, but the most fascinating thing is that in the instances where Joe brought back the Coke and gave it to the subject of the experiment, the relationship between liking and compliance was completely wiped out. For those who owed Joe a favor because he had given them a drink, even though they never asked or it, it made no difference whether they liked him or not. They felt a sense of obligation to repay him, and they did. Again, this experiment took place a long time ago, so at the time a Coke cost ten cents. He was selling these raffle tickets for 25 cents. So, the average return that he had for the people that he gave the Coke to was more than 500%. That’s a pretty fascinating study, but the most interesting thing about it is the fact that even though it’s a miniscule, small gift, in the scenario where he didn’t give them anything, how many tickets they purchased was completely dependent on how much they liked Joe, but as soon as he gives them a ten cent present, the relationship is completely obliterated and all they care about is repaying that favor that he had given to them.
Another fascinating example, and again, this one takes place many years ago in the ‘70s, and part of that reason is that Influence was written originally in the ‘70s, and it’s been updated a number of times, but another example from the ‘70s is of the Hari Krishnas. This was a religious sect, that now it’s not really very popular, but back then they experienced this huge growth, and this huge boom, and it was funny because they had been struggling for a really, really long time financially. They couldn’t figure out how to raise money, and one day they happened on this idea of giving people a flower before they asked for a donation. So, they would go to high traffic areas, they would go to airports, they would go to bus stations, all that kind of stuff, and they would basically just come up and hand people a flower, or they would hand them a small book of their scriptures, or just some small gift, and they would not accept ‘no’ as an answer. They would say, “No, this is our gift for you. Please take it. Please accept it.” As soon as they implemented that strategy they went from struggling, stagnating, being kind of a washed up religious order, to massive growth. They exploded. This fundraising strategy completely revolutionized the church.
Here’s how Cialdini describes the Hari Krishna strategy: “The unsuspecting passerby who suddenly found flowers pressed into their hands, or pinned to their jackets, were under no circumstances allowed to give them back, even if they asserted that they did not want them. “No, it is our gift to you,” said the solicitor, refusing to take it back. Only after the Krishna member had thus brought the force of the reciprocation rule to bare on the situation was the target asked to provide a contribution to the society. This benefactor before beggar strategy was wildly successful for the Hari Krishna society. Producing large scale economic gains and funding, the ownership of temples, businesses, houses, and property in the 321 centers in the United States and abroad.
So, the Hari Krishna example is a great example that shows us how even if you don’t want the gift, somebody who you don’t like, don’t care about, can give you something and suddenly this bias gets triggered and you feel obligated to give them something back. There’s a similar example in pharmaceutical research, and this example showcases also the superpower of incentives, which we will talk about in a later podcast. That’s something… we talked about Charlie Munger before. Charlie Munger, again the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffet, once said that he has been in the top of his age cohort his entire life in understanding the power of incentives, and his entire life he has underestimated them. Anyway, this example showcases the superpower of incentives. A study in 1998 found that 100% of the scientists who had published results supporting a certain calcium drug had received prior support from the pharmaceutical company that produced them, but only 37% of those publishing critical results had received the same kind of support. So again, it’s something that incentives are incredibly powerful, and it’s something that we often think, “Yeah, of course I know incentives are powerful,” but the reality is even when you account for the fact that you know how powerful they are, they can be even more powerful than that. Even something as simple as funding certain types of research, right, and you can see this in global warming, or tobacco, or all kinds of different things. Often the people who fund a lot of this research, the scientists, even if it’s at- not at a conscious level, but at a subconscious level, often come to conclusions that support whoever happens to be paying their bills. Paying their paychecks. So, there’s an Upton Sinclair quote that it’s hard to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it.
Another really simple example, and this is pretty crazy: We all know what a pain in the ass it is to have to fill out surveys from an insurance company, or whatever other ridiculous junk mail. Most people just throw it out, right? Like, I mean I know personally that I throw gobs of mail out every day. I just get a ton of junk in the mail. Well, in this experiment, and this took place in 1992, an insurance company actually found that when they mailed people a $50- when they offered a $50 reward for completing a survey, they didn’t have a lot of traction, but when they switched to just sending people a $5 gift check along with the surveys, they doubled the effectiveness of their strategy. So literally, instead of getting paid $50 for filling the strategy out, when people received upfront a $5 gift, the reciprocation bias kicked in and they felt some sort of obligation, you know, “Oh my gosh, they sent me five bucks. Yeah, I’ll take 30 seconds and fill out this survey,” but it was literally one tenth of what they could have been offered and it was twice as effective. It just shows you how powerful reciprocation can be.
Another example is if you ever get those things in the mail where they send you shipping labels that have your own name and address on them. I know, for example, AAA sends me those all the time, and having read Influence I ruthlessly exploit them and just take the stickers for myself, but one charity found that when they would normally send out a mailer requesting donations, they would have about an 18% success rate, but just by including those individual shipping labels they doubled their success rate to 35%. Again, it might not seem like that much, but think about the fact literally just including a few shipping labels doubles their success rate with that strategy. It’s just like the… you know, I mean reciprocation is incredibly powerful bias.
Now we’re going to get into what I think probably is one of my favorite examples of how powerful the reciprocation bias can be, and that’s what’s called the “zoo experiment”. The zoo example is one of my favorites because it’s so nakedly obvious that there’s cognitive bias at work here. This piece of research highlights something that’s called the rejection and retreat technique. Cialdini and a group of researchers conducted an experiment where they approached college students and asked them to volunteer, and take juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo. Okay, in that study, that was kind of the control case, 83% of the students said ‘no’. I mean, I don’t really blame them. I probably would have said no myself. Next they changed things up just a little bit. They did the same experiment on a different set of college students, but they tweaked it just a tiny bit. They added one question before they asked the students to take the juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo. Before they asked that, they asked the students, “Would you like to volunteer two hours a week, for a minimum two year commitment, to be a counselor for juvenile delinquents?” 100% of the people said ‘no’, but they then followed up with the same request, “Would you like to take juvenile delinquents just on a single day trip to the zoo?” In that instance 50% of the people said ‘yes’. That’s a tripling of the compliance rate simply by including a question that every single person said ‘no’ to at the beginning. That’s pretty wild when you think about it. They went form a 17% yes rate to a 50% yes rate without changing the question. All they did was add another question at the beginning that triggered the cognitive bias because they conceded and backed away from their position, and then the other person felt, “Okay, well they made a concession to me. I’ll make a concession to them,” and that’s why it’s called the rejection and retreat technique. Now, the rejection and retreat technique is something that everyone on some level or another is probably familiar with. That’s just kind of a piece of research that really validates that, and everybody’s heard the- when you’re dealing with negotiations, or whatever, that you should ask for more than you want, and blah, blah, blah, but it’s not just hearsay, it’s not just folk wisdom, it’s actually validated research.
One of the even more interesting findings is that they did a very similar study, but what they really wanted to understand is: Is this so nakedly obvious that it works on the front end, but then as soon as people realize that they’d been taken advantage of, they lose the buy in and they don’t care anymore, and they’re not going to continue to kind of comply with your requests? So, they did an experiment with blood donations. Another fascinating example of the rejection and the retreat technique is how it can create longer lasting effects, and is nearly immune to the idea that people would refuse in the future because they feel like they were taken advantage of. So, in this experiment, in the blood donation experiment, they had college students who were asked to give a pint of blood as part of the annual campus blood drive. Then they had another group of students who were asked first to give a pint of blood every six weeks for a minimum of three years, and then they backed down to: “Okay, well would you just give a pint of blood once?” So, it’s the same kind of thing with the juvenile delinquents, the same strategy. You have one control group and you have one group where you ask a ridiculous request and then follow it up with: “Okay, will you just do something a little simpler?” The results were replicated. Of course the people were more likely to comply when they first offered them the really tough question, but the fascinating thing was the students who actually went to the blood center were then asked if they would be willing to give their phone numbers so that they could be called upon again to donate blood later in the future. So, the finding was, or what they were testing for was: Okay, the people who we essentially tricked, or used these weapons of influence on, are they going to be bitter, and are they going to say, “Well, they tricked me into going here?” or whatever, and thus be less likely to give their phone number to donate in the future? What actually happened is the students who had the rejection-then-retreat used on them, 84% of the students gave their phone number and said they would be willing to donate blood again. The students who were just in the control group, who were only asked, “Hey, will you donate a pint of blood?” only 43% of those students said that they would be willing to give their phone number and be a donor in the future. So, even for future favors, even when somebody might know, or feel like, they’ve been taken advantage of, the rejection-then-retreat technique proved superior, and the reciprocation bias is so strong that it can carry through something like that weeks later.
So, now that we’ve looked at some of the research, what are the practical implications of this? How can we use this in our everyday lives? Again, as a refresher, the reciprocation bias is the tendency to reciprocate when someone does something for us. Sounds really simple, but what are the practical implications of that? What are the takeaways from the research, and how can we apply this stuff to our everyday life? The first major lesson is that reciprocation supersedes our wants and our likes. The effect still holds even when the gift is unwanted, and even if you don’t like the person giving you the gift. The Hari Krishna example, and the Coke bottle experiment, and the blood donation research all point to that conclusion, and all demonstrate that conclusion. That’s why it’s so powerful. The person doesn’t even have to like you. The person doesn’t even have to want the gift. If you give it to them, it will trigger this innate subconscious desire, need, obligation to reciprocate. Similarly, reciprocation can trigger unequal exchanges. A small initial favor can trigger the psychological response to do a much larger favor. The Coke bottle experiment’s a good example, where Joe had more than a 500% return on his gift, but there are countless examples of this in real life.
The third lesson is that this applies to concessions in a negotiation. Think about the zoo experiment and the rejection and retreat technique. If you make a bigger ask, and then you give the concession to the other person, they feel this deep subconscious obligation to make a concession also. There is a little bit of a caveat there because subsequent research has shown that if your initial ask is too big, or too ridiculous, over a certain threshold, people will see right through it and they’ll basically… they won’t get caught in the reciprocation trap, but as the blood donation research showed, as the zoo trip showed, it can be a pretty hefty request. As long as you concede and back down, you can double or triple your compliance rate simply by adding another request in at the beginning that’s a little bit more burdensome, a little bit more onerous.
So, how do you defend yourself against reciprocation tendency? How do you stop somebody from exploiting you by using this strategy? Cialdini says that knowledge and awareness are the best offenses, and that you should steal yourself against the feeling of having to reciprocate a gift. One of the best ways he suggests combatting the reciprocation bias is by reframing in your mind, from a gift to a trick. Here’s what he says in Influence, “If gifts were used not as genuine gifts, but to make a profit from you, then you might want to use them to make a profit of your own. Simply take whatever the compliance practitioner is willing to provide, thank them politely, and show them out the door. After all, the reciprocity rule asserts that if justice is to be done, exploitation attempts should be exploited.” I talked about that briefly earlier when I gave the example of including the shipping labels in the mailer nearly doubling the effectiveness of that fundraising campaign. That’s why when you get those free shipping labels, you should steal those things and don’t worry about even replying to the rest of the mail. Just throw it out because exploitation attempts should be exploited.
So, that’s reciprocation bias. It’s something that’s incredibly powerful. It’s something that I hope this research demonstrated to you, shapes and impacts our lives in a number of ways. Now that you’re aware of it, not only can you use it for good, and use it for your own benefit, but now you can stop people from exploiting you by using the reciprocation tendency.