Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Influence, Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Reciprocation

This chapter is about the powerful social urge to return favors.  The feeling of owing something will drive us to be surprisingly accommodating to future requests.

This is partly a natural and good and healthy impulse.  Reciprocation is social glue.  We are nice to people and they are nice back.  You can think of being nice as a sort of "social transfer" similar to a monetary loan. When we do someone a favor, we can expect them to return it down the road.  Being nice is partly an investment in future social capital, and long before we had any formal monetary system or even a way of storing wealth, our capacity to keep track of the complex social web of relationships must have been a huge advantage for human society.

And it still is.  Don't get me wrong, money has a lot going for it.  For one thing, it enables a truly vast network of people -- orders of magnitude larger than the networks that social ties can sustain -- to cooperate with each other.  But social currency is pretty awesome too.  For one thing, whereas most people don't love their jobs, we tend to genuinely enjoy earning social currency.  We are programmed to enjoy being nice to people we know.

(Of course, the people most in need of your help are probably not people you know.  But if you are like most people, you don't enjoy giving to them nearly as much as you enjoy giving to people you know, partly because doing so will not build up your social capital).

But let's get back to the book.  The impulse to reciprocate is strong for good reason, but it can also be abused by people who want us to comply with their wishes.  There are several sneaky ways to do this.

First, reciprocation inherently does not seem to be one-for-one, zero sum.  If you give someone a flower, you can get more than a flower's-worth in return.  I imagine this is especially driven by uncertainty over what the flower costs.  (People are willing to pay extra to make sure there is no perception that they are shortchanging you).  The example here is the Krishnas, who famously used to give flowers in the airport before immediately asking for a donation.  Many people would reciprocate with donations even though they didn't even want the flowers.  (We know they didn't want the flowers because they would promptly throw them in the trash.  And then the Krishnas would take them out of the garbage and do it again!)

For the Krishnas, a donation could be in any amount.  But one could also gain on net by offering a small favor and engineering it so the only way to discharge the debt is through a larger favor.  For example, you might give someone a Coke and then later ask them to buy raffle tickets, each of which costs more than a Coke.  Or you might offer free samples of a product, where the only way to "return" the favor is to buy the actual product.

A more devious and interesting approach is the reject-then-retreat method.  In experiments, Cialdini found that by offering an initial deal that was likely to be rejected, they could substantially increase the percentage of people who agreed to another, milder deal.  We could frame concessions within a bargaining process as a sort of favor which the counter-bargainer feels compelled to return.  The experiments were inspired by the example of a Boy Scout with whom the following sequence of events took place (I am paraphrasing here):
Boy Scout: Would you like this $5 circus ticket?
Cialdini: No.
Boy Scout: Well in that case would you like to buy some $1 chocolate bars.
Cialdini: OK...I'll take a couple.
The idea is that the Boy Scout first offers an expensive ticket and then makes a concession by offering cheaper chocolate bars.  Cialdini first rejects the offer for the ticket, but then he feels compelled to make a concession as well.  The only way to back off from rejection, though, is to buy a nonzero amount of chocolate. Even though he doesn't like chocolate.

To be honest, I think a similar thing happened to me with pizza once. Even though I am lactose intolerant.

The thing is, understanding that social pressure is being exerted does not make you immune to it.  You don't magically stop caring what other people think about you, just because you wish they weren't using their opinions to apply pressure.  That said, it can be fun to rebel against social influence that you disagree with.

A final takeaway -- although Cialdini does not frame it in this way -- is that many social interactions can be framed as a bargaining process, and concessions toward the middle automatically make the outcome seem more favorable to the subject.  Experiments show that concessions toward the middle make the subject feel more responsible for the outcome, and more satisfied with it too, even when the outcome is exactly the same.


  1. It was in college. A guy asked me if I wanted to make a donation to some club or some cause. I said no, so he said, "Oh, in that case would you like to buy some pizza for $2 a slice?" So I bought a slice of pizza, and then scratched my head about it for the rest of the day.

    These days I would say no, but it would still cause me social suffering.