Ethan Fast

Reciprocity and the Status Quo

22 April, 2012 -- Menlo Park, CA

Humans tend to reciprocate by default. Do me a favor, and I’m inclined to repay in kind. You don’t have to be a determinist to see the mental gears turn.

As Cialdini1 would say: click, whirr.

Problems arise when savvy individuals take advantage of this mechanism. A car salesmen will do you trivial favors: open your door, adjust your seat, offer to help you with your coat, and so on. She hopes you will reciprocate by buying a car.

Yet while a deft manipulator takes advantage of our urge to reciprocate, repeated reciprocity is not nearly so useful. Humans may be inclined to repay a single favor, but a series of similar favors can actually leave us less inclined.

For two wrongs do make a right, when reciprocity interacts with the status quo.

The status quo bias leads us to privilege what is normal. It provides an anchoring effect2 that keeps us in our comfort zone. And it can subsume reciprocity. For when the same “favor” is done often enough, it slips into our notion of what is normal. A truly expected favor is not really a favor at all. It becomes an entitlement. So to take advantage of reciprocity, you must provide an unexpected favor. Otherwise we will wrap it into the status quo on which we anchor, justly or unjustly.

In this way your salary, which at first may have seemed exorbitant, soon becomes a matter of simple justice. For it is a repeated event. Bonuses more effectively instill your loyalty through reciprocation.

Pit the reciprocity bias against anchoring in a fight to the death, and you might end up with a Rational Human. But better to avoid either in the first place.

  1. I recommend his book, Influence: Science and Practice

  2. Obligatory wikipedia link. I can also vouch for Baron’s Thinking and Deciding as a reasonable introduction to human decision-making (and the biases therein).