Defending yourself against Persuasion – Reciprocity

By Michael Edmonds 27/04/2011

I’ve always had an interest in human psychology, particularly the way people interact with each other. Lately I’ve read a few books which look at how people can influence or persuade others to do what they want. While I find such techniques to be quite interesting, I also find some of them to be quite devisive and ethically questionable. Most focus on manipulating others emotively, rather than rationally which also bothers me.

So I thought I would write a few blogs outlining a some of these techniques and ways to defend against them.


When someone gives you a gift or does you a favour, it is typical to feel a sense of obligation, a need to do something in return for the kindness. Such reciprocity has social benefits in encouraging co-operation and a sharing of workloads. However, this ingrained tendency can be rather ruthlessly exploited, for it’s effect is so strong, it can be manipulated to afford reciprocation in excess of the initial gift. Some examples include: 

  • Hare Krishna donations at airports increased substantially when prospective donors were given a flower or pamphlet instead of being asked for a donation.
  • Free gifts with products in shops or on TV
  • Money back guarantee’s of items such as make up. Even though ad’s may state that you can return the empty containers for a money back guarantee, the “Law” of reciprocity means this is unlikely to happen.
  • Free samples in the mail, at the supermarket etc

Countering Reciprocity

While I personally think it is important and socially appropriate to “pay back” friends and colleagues who do me favours, if I feel a sense of obligation is being used to manipulate me, I usually try to resist reciprocity in two ways:

1) Return the gift politely, or if this is not possible,

2) Take the gift,and remind myself mentally that reciprocation is not appropriate, as a gift used to manipulate is not truly a gift.

A third alternative under some circumstances is to provide the “benefactor” with alternative “gift” to what they were expecting.

It is estimated that the average person undergoes about 400 attempts to persuade him or her each day.  The more we are aware of the techniques of manipulation the better we are at protecting ourselves from them.


Two of the latest books I have read are

“Flipnosis; the art of split second persuasion” by Kevin Dutton

“Influence – the psychology of persuasion” by Robert Cialdini

0 Responses to “Defending yourself against Persuasion – Reciprocity”

  • A naughty friend of mine would turn reciprocity around with the Hare Krishnas, back in the 70s:

    Mark 1 would engage in conversation with a Hare Krishna (HK), take the book, and be asked for a donation to “cover costs”.

    Mark 2 would walk past, and as he did so, Mark 1 would hand him the book, saying, “Here! You might like this!”

    Mark 2 would say “Thanks very much” and continue walking.

    Mark 1 would then say to the HK, “Well, nice talking to you” and walk in the opposite direction, to meet up at a cafe later with Mark 2.

    HK would have no moral authority over the person with the book (M2), but could not continue to hector the person who was handed it (M1). A dilemma. We, I mean, he stopped doing this when we found out later that the HKs were seriously disciplined at the Ashram by the KrishCon scammers for failing to realise a profit, sorry, quota.

  • I’ve been the recipient of this sort of generosity a few times while travelling. Polite attempts to refuse or return the “gifts” can lead to some quite confrontational behaviour in the “donor”. Good way to actually get cursed by an actual gypsy lady.

  • John, an interesting approach.

    Trouble, sounds a bit scary. I wonder what would happen if you gave them a little trinket in return for theirs or delivered up an appropriate “curse” in Maori in return for hers?