The Law of Obligation/Reciprocity states that people generally feel obligated to return favors or good deeds that have been done to them by others.
Many years ago, when Dr. Robert Cialdini, – who is what I consider to be the “godfather” of influence – was beginning his psychological research to really determine what makes people tick and what makes people think and act in a certain way, one of the essential aspects that he touched upon was the reciprocity factor.
People generally feel obligated to return favors or good deeds that have been done to them by others. What this means is that if you do something good for someone, chances are they will feel indebted to you and want to return the favor. This is a technique that has been used for thousands of years. Even in ancient times when people didn’t have money and barter was the general method of exchange among people, using reciprocity was just as popular then at as it is now.
We see this many times in sales. I’ve been a salesman for practically my entire life. Most of the selling that I did was in the fitness industry. When someone would enter the club asking about membership information, the first thing I would do is offer the prospect of free bottle of water. This instantly sends a subconscious reciprocation trigger to the prospect causing them to feel obligated to me in some way, shape or form. And in most cases, the way that the prospect returned the favor was by purchasing my product or service. Now I’m not saying that by simply giving a prospect a bottle of water or a gift of some sort, will always result in a sale. But the likelihood of you making the sale increases dramatically when you do.
There’s an old saying that says smiles are contagious; meaning that when someone smiles at us, we smile back. This is the the Law of Obligation in the rawest form. Many times, we receive smiles from people that we don’t even know or that we have no history with and/or have never done anything with. But when they smile at us, we automatically fill indebted to smile back at them.
There have been many multimillion dollar negotiations that began with a one-party bringing a gift to the meeting and presenting it to the other party before the negotiation even begins. This is a goodwill gesture, which sends a message into the mind of the other party that you’re here for a win-win and you want all parties to benefit. This lowers the resistance of the other party and makes them more receptive to whatever you have to say. It also creates a feeling of obligation within.
Just as people feel naturally obliged to return favors, they also feel very uneasy if they don’t return favors or if favors are not returned to them. The Law of Obligation is nothing new and has been used for thousands of years. The key to making it work is knowing what to offer and ensuring that it will be on the same level of what you expect in return. I’ve seen countless people try to apply this law only to have it not work because the other party had different idea or viewpoint about whatever you contributed to them. Always make sure you’re on the same level as your target.