I’ll scratch your back, and you can do me a favour… then another

Back to psychology: reciprocity. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours then ask you for another favour.

This is why the Hare Krishnas are so bloody annoying. Have you ever seen them around, doing their thing with the orange robes and the dancing and the tambourines?

Now, I don’t have patience with any religious group interfering with my life (particularly when they knock on my door, and I’ve got an anecdote about that for another day). However, I’ve picked on the Krishnas specifically because they exploit people using the psychology of influence.

More specifically, they use the principle of reciprocity.

Hugging zebras

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

That is, the obligation we all feel to return a favour. You know how it goes; it’s coming up to Christmas, and a card arrives on the mat from someone you’d forgotten about or who just didn’t merit a card for whatever reason.

If you’re anything like me, you immediately start fretting that you haven’t sent them a card – and at the last minute, you wang one in the post and hope it gets there on time.

That’s the principle of reciprocity at work, and it’s one of the most potent weapons of influence we have. Most societies are built on this principle.

The rule says that if someone provides something for us, we must try to repay them in kind.

If you’re in any doubt as to how powerful this is, have a think back to a time when somebody did you a favour you weren’t sure you could return. Did it make you feel uncomfortable,? Anxious, even? I bet it did – it certainly makes me feel uneasy when I know I can’t return a favour to someone.

This is a very powerful principle and it’s really important to get it right.

For example: has somebody ever done something for you when you’ve specifically asked them not to? If so, did you resent them for it? Dislike them a little? Sounds counterintuitive, right? But this happens.

An inability to repay a favour puts your relationship with the other person out of whack. It leaves you feeling obligatedand puts you in a weakened position.

That’s what the Krishnas do, and it’s why many people resent them. They manipulate people into donating to their cause. And there’s another reason this is a bad idea, too: it guarantees there’ll be no long-term relationship. And that, my friend, is where the money is.

The fundraising Krishna would press a gift upon an unwary passer-by – a book, magazine or flower. Under no circumstances would the Krishna accept the return of the gift, even when the passer-by said they did not want it. “No, it is our gift to you,” they said. Only then, when the passer-by unwillingly accepted the gift, did the Krishna ask for money. And he usually received it, because such is the power of reciprocation.

Incidentally, sociologists have studied the phenomenon of reciprocation in human societies around the world, and haven’t yet found one where the rule doesn’t apply. Reciprocation is vital to our survival and it was key to our evolution. Without it, we wouldn’t have shared resources, learned to work together, and developed the skills we have.

The cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger (what a brilliant name) and Robin Fox call it a “web of indebtedness” unique to humans, which creates interdependencies that bind individuals together into highly efficient groups.

The implications of the rule of reciprocity are enormous. Think about it. It is immensely powerful, and it can induce people to do things for others that they wouldn’t normally do. Even for people they might ordinarily dislike.

But it is possible to use this weapon of influence ethically. You don’t have to manipulate to influence. And we can make great use of it in our businesses.

I get my husband, Joe, to sense-check everything I write to you – and he told me about his experience with Gillette. On his 16th birthday, Gillette sent Joe a shaving starter kit consisting of a birthday card, a booklet on how to shave, a disposable razor, some spare blades and a can of shaving gel.

That’s an awesome little gift pack – it had real value to Joe. It was useful and educational and thoughtful. He’s used Gillette stuff ever since. Of course, there are other reasons he uses Gillette too, but they made a great first impression.

(Incidentally, if you want to see how great marketing is done, Proctor & Gamble usually get it right.)

Banks are similar – or used to be in my youth. When I was a student, I remember banks falling over themselves to give me stuff: £150 in my bank account to start me off, a huge overdraft, concert tickets, record vouchers, beer… you name it, they had it as their free gift. So you picked the bank with the best gifts and off you went. Then you get older and wiser and make decisions based on boring but important stuff like interest rates.

Anyway, my point is that if you give your customers great value, they will happily reciprocate by giving you their details, or buying from you.

What can you do in your business? Perhaps you could send out a mailing with free samples. Or send a free gift (that they’ll find useful). Or allow them to use your product free for 30 days. The possibilities are endless.

Give it a try.


PS This thing, this gift, is your offer. The thing you put out there that makes people sign up. And when they have signed up and put themselves in your camp, they’re more likely to stick with you.



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

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