Lately I’ve been reading the book Influence by Robert Cialdini. In it he talks about the principle of reciprocity. We tend to repay, in kind, what someone else has given us - even when we did not want it, and even when we did not take it.

If someone gives us a gift, we are hardwired to feel obligated to repay in some fashion. This is heavily ingrained in most people, and as a result society ensures a fairly low status for people who appear not to follow this principle.

This principle, while providing great benefits most of the time, does lead to some quirks.

Reciprocity and Concessions

What Cialdini discovered was that not only are favors expected to be repaid in kind, people expect something in return for concessions they make for you. This ordinarily makes sense, but people tend to expect it even when they conceded something that was of no value to you.

Not only do they expect something, the recipient feels obligated whenever someone concedes something for him. Even when the recipient did not benefit from the concession!

Here are some concrete examples.

Boy Scouts and Chocolate

Cialdini was walking on the street when a Boy Scout stopped him and asked him if he wanted to buy tickets for $5 to a circus organized by the Boy Scouts. Cialdini was not at all interested and declined. The Scout then said “Well, OK. If you won’t buy the tickets, how about these two chocolate bars for $2 instead?” Cialdini bought them.

Why is this example interesting?

  1. Cialdini did not care for the Boy Scouts.
  2. $2 was not an insignificant amount for him. This was in the 70’s or early 80’s.
  3. He does not like chocolate.

So why did he buy them? It was an automatic response. The Scout appeared to make a concession, and Cialdini suddenly felt obligated.

You’re Selfish!”

Some years ago I asked a friend for a favor that involved manual labor. He was hesitant. After some cajoling, he said he’d do it for me in return for a favor he had of me. What he asked from me required a big commitment that I was not willing to make. Sensing that he did not want to do the favor, I declined and decided to drop the request.

Others witnessed this whole interaction, and one of them later came to me and expressed great displeasure with me. Why? Because someone was willing to make a concession for me (by doing the favor I requested), but that I was not willing to repay (I declined his counter request). Therefore, I was selfish.

I was a bit taken aback. This person felt that I owed someone something for a concession they were making, even though in the end no work was done! Just by his making a concession, this observer felt I was obligated to accept it and make one in return.

As Cialdini says in his book, society’s expectations are:

Obligation to give, obligation to receive, and obligation to repay.

As such, the giver has an advantage, because of the obligation to receive. I violated that rule, by refusing to receive.

Reciprocity In Negotiations

I have read a number of books on negotiation, and taken a course in it as well.

All of them, without fail, state:

If you are making a concession during negotiations, signal its relevance clearly to the other party.

If you do not, they will behave as if you provided something “free” that was of no value to you and will try to extract more from you. By signaling it, it puts you in a position where you may be able to ask for something in return for the concession.

Only one resource made explicit this related rule:

If the other party concedes something that is of no value to you, do not make a concession for them in return.


Suppose you are negotiating with another party, and there are 5 scenarios on the table under consideration. Let’s say that they are A, B, C, D and E. A is your optimal target, but you will benefit from B as well. You view D and E as damaging to you, and you would rather not have an agreement than to agree to those options.

For the other party, E is optimal, and they would also be happy with D.

So after some time on negotiations, the other party says “I am willing to take option E off the table and not bring it up any more, provided you take option A off the table.”

Should you agree to this?

The book was clear: You should not.

Why should you concede an option that benefits you when the other party removes an option that you would never have agreed to anyway? It may be a big concession to him, but not at all meaningful to you.

When I came across this, it took a lot of thinking before I understood what he meant. Even now, as I type this, it feels somehow wrong that I would reject that offer. Such is the power of the principle of reciprocity.

Why should you reject the concession? Because certain types of negotiators will try to exploit the principle of reciprocity. In this scenario, the other party may really be after option C. However, he feels it’ll be a tough sell. So he makes it sound like option C is a sacrifice after painfully giving up options D and E. It’s his way of getting what he wants without making any real concessions.

All the books I read warn about this trick being used against you, but only one framed it in terms of the principle of reciprocity.

Based on this, as a rule, I try to signal clearly when another person’s concession is meaningless to me. It’s effectively saying “That’s nice, but you don’t have to make that sacrifice, because no one is benefiting from you making it.”

In the case of the observer thinking I’m very selfish, what happened was that the favor I was asking for was a much bigger commitment in his eyes than it was in mine. It was a “big” favor from his perspective. And what he was asking from me was not a big favor from his perspective, but it was from mine. There was a mismatch in how we were sizing each of the requests.