Psychologist, Robert Cialdini, PhD. author of the popular book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1993), wrote about six rules or principles of influence. Among these is the rule of reciprocity. The rule of reciprocity is understood as “one of the most widespread and basic norms of human culture” that “requires that one person try to repay what another person has provided (Six Principle of Persuasion Summary, n.d.).” This social norm creates a social obligation such that the recipient of a gift is expected to repay the giver at some time in the future. According to Cialdini, the rule of reciprocity can be beneficial to a society because it creates in a person a sense of future obligation that assists them in the development of relationships including exchanges and transactions that are beneficial to society.
We can think of baby showers as one type of social exchange, and we can think of taxes and social security as another type of exchange or transaction, for example. These types of transactions ‘work’ when we believe that we may/will receive a future payback ourselves. Because of the rule of reciprocity, we are more likely to give when others have need. It is understood that this sense of future obligation helps us to be more giving and sharing human beings.
Yet, the rule of reciprocity may be used not only in beneficial ways, but instead it may be used in coercive ways, too. Many times, it is the rule of reciprocity that calculating and manipulative marketers use to trap their victims. This is because it is known that the reciprocity rules can motivate exchanges in such a way that one side is able to extract profit (that is realize a gain, not an equal exchange) from the other. This coercion works because the recipient of a gift is generally eager to remove the feeling of indebtedness that they feel when they receive a gift.
Understanding the mechanics and using the rules of reciprocity can influence an unsuspecting victim of influence. I will share with you an imaginary experience of this type of coercive behavior that might occur in the workplace.
Imagine, if you were a woman, how you might respond if you were given, by your new supervisor, a single stem rose on your first day of employment. Would you feel warm and good, like the giver really cared about you and others who worked for her? Imagine also, if the employer you worked for was a distributor of consumer goods, and the common practice was that the supervisors passed out ‘discards’ – that is the product that will no longer be sold, but discarded – was handed out to employees in small quantities, items such as paper plates, napkins, stationery, etc. instead of being thrown into the trash. Would this make you feel good because it demonstrated that the company cared about the environment and did this as a form of recycling? Might you also think that your employer cared enough about you that they were willing to give their products, (which are the best, of course!), to you, free of charge?
What I have come to realize is that small gifts such as these – trinkets and trash really – can prompt overworked and underpaid workers who receive very little benefits to be very, very loyal in return. This loyalty can be so great, that it can result in a situation such as one that I have become aware – a company policy that its part-time employees receive communication each time they work that they are required to report all time spent in work-related activities. Why would an employer need to reinforce with their work team that they need to submit all of their work time? That is a very good question. Perhaps it might have something to do with an employer’s manipulation and coercion methods.
I have heard descriptions of such manipulative work conditions, which some women I know endure. The example I have heard is that in this job (this is a job that very few men will accept), the women sometimes work even without receiving financial gain. This is because they work within their ‘budget hours’ and yet they comply to the demands to do what needs to be done to accomplish what is told to them to be ‘their required’ tasks. This means that it is common practice that they work ‘off the clock’ (perhaps through their lunch ‘break’) to get their tasks accomplished. I’ll explain why they might be doing this. Their loyalty (gained by methods such as those described above), as part time employees, includes ‘ownership’ of their departments. Part of that ownership is ensuring that payroll budgets are complied to, that required tasks are completed, and that the employer (and the big-box-retailer which it supplies) makes a profit requiring growth over last year’s sales. Sometimes, the ‘required’ work shifts consist of so few hours (even a half-hour or less) that financial gain to the employee is ‘used up’ in transportation costs to and from ‘work’. This means that the part-time crew that keeps the product on the shelves work in various situations where only one side of the relationship is receiving profit at times.
It seems that this particular company is a very good marketer, indeed. It is considered the number one industry leader in its category, and it has developed the same style marketing tools to manipulate its workforce as it uses in persuading its customers to buy its products. I have now become more aware of how employers may use manipulative methods to coerce and manipulate their workforce. I will no longer live with the cognitive dissonance that results when my work duties require that I act in ways that coerce or manipulate others. Additionally, I will no longer allow small gifts and trinkets to manipulate or coerce me into feeling a sense of loyalty to somehow repay. In fact, as a personal protest against such unfair business practices, I choose to gain knowledge concerning the business practices of those companies with with I do business, and I favor the companies who better maintain fair business practices. It is very clear to me that understanding how the rule of reciprocity works can help people avoid coercive and manipulative behaviors of others and their negative impacts.
Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. Six Principles of Persuasion Summary. (n.d.).
Six principles of persuasion summary. [Web page] Retrieved from https://moodle.esc.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=47185
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