The Theory of Reciprocation: Get Back Big, By Giving Small First

by Josh Barney

My love of fruit is serious.

Give me an apple and I’m a happy man.

This isn’t big news or a well-known fact and has absolutely nothing to do with marketing, but something happened yesterday that blew my schedule of planned content clean out the window.

I finished my day at work and drove home. Now, as sometimes happens with the commute, there was traffic. A lot of it.

An extra hour in the car took its toll; hunger, thirst, agitation.

I got home (safe and sound), parked up and went straight out to buy something to eat, when something unexpected happened…

…the assistant from the local grocery was offering passers-by free bags of grapes.

He had a crowd around him, talking and eating the freebies and then, about 75% of these people walked into his store (the other 25% were frowned at by the crowd).

I accepted the offering, and he nodded inside, ‘Come, take a look!’

Before I knew it, I was in the shop and just like everyone else, I was buying stuff!

I walked out of the shop £7.20 lighter and even though it was more expensive than the supermarket (I was walking towards), it disrupted my plans and I had a dinner of (just) fruit that night…

…I was happy!


Whilst eating my fruit salad dinner, I considered the steps I’d taken on my journey from innocent passer-by to customer.

A series of questions kept coming up:

  1. I didn’t want grapes, so why did I stop?
  2. Why did we frown at the people who didn’t enter the shop?
  3. Why did I go inside, when I was going to the supermarket?
  4. Why did I buy fruit, when I wanted a meal?
  5. Why was I happy with my purchase, when I clearly hadn’t snagged a bargain?

The answer to all my questions: RECIPROCATION.


theory of reciprocation

The principle of reciprocation relies on the human inclination to give something back when something is received.

Applied to my experience, the greengrocer gave out his grapes (that he wouldn’t be able to sell the next day) people took them and felt obliged to give something back, so they bought from his store.

Think about the last time you held a party, did you invite somebody because they’d invited you to their last gathering?

That’s reciprocation working at its finest.

The Answers

Now we know that reciprocation was behind his success, let’s take a look at the reasons, courtesy of my five earlier questions:

  1. I didn’t want grapes, so why did I stop?

theory of reciprocation

Before I was able to feel the need to reciprocate, I had to receive something.

Even though I didn’t want grapes, the crowd, the flurry of activity and the buzz of FREE STUFF grabbed my attention.

People love free stuff, because it provides no risk and demands zero effort in exchange.

If the man had stood outside his store offering those grapes for 20p, I wouldn’t have taken them.

I was a victim of the power of free.

  1. Why did we frown at the people who didn’t enter the shop?

theory of reciprocation

Our psychology is tuned to reciprocate.

Even though the man wasn’t offering free grapes in exchange for a purchase, people felt like they owed him something.

And those that didn’t reciprocate we’re perceived as rude.

In fact, people that don’t reciprocate are considered users, takers, lazy, ignorant and often uneducated.

They hadn’t broken any rules, stolen, or intended to offend anyone, but we all frowned because they’d broken their (social) obligation to reciprocate.

Think about people on social benefits. People assume they’re users, just because they’re getting money for FREE. When really, their lives are often much more complicated.

  1. Why did I go inside, when I was going to the supermarket?

theory of reciprocation

The answer lies in one very polite request, ‘Come, take a look!’

He said it to the people before me, and those that followed. I could’ve turned it down, like the 25% who walked away, but I didn’t because, his call to action came at the perfect moment.

He was at the peak of his powers. I’d just picked up my delicious looking FREE grapes and had framed him as a kind and generous man, who wasn’t demanding anything in return.

Psychology insisted that I entered.

  1. Why did I buy fruit, when I wanted a meal?

theory of reciprocation

All the previous steps led up to this point, I’d been primed to buy. There was no way that I was walking out of that shop empty handed.

I wanted to reciprocate. I didn’t need, or have, or feel obliged to.

The principle of reciprocation made me want to buy.

Fruit wasn’t an ideal dinner, but in that moment, it didn’t matter.

In fact, I completely forgot about buying a meal and instead, had an internal debate about what product was best to buy…

…and ended up with most of them!

  1. Why was I happy with my purchase, when I clearly hadn’t snagged a bargain?

theory of reciprocation

I walked home with two bags of fruit, that I probably could’ve bought for 2/3’s of the £££ at the supermarket.

But, I was elated because I’d reciprocated!

I’d become equal with the kind man who was offering free grapes to passers-by.

Entering into an exchange with an awesome guy (or someone at least positioned as one), made me feel awesome too.

And that feeling will make me buy there again.

Get the Reciprocation Factor

You don’t have to sell fruit for reciprocation to take effect.

There are a ton of different ways you can use it and barely any of them involve giving away free stuff.

Most of them won’t cost you a thing, except a little time…

…and if you aren’t prepared to put that in, you should save us all the hassle and stop trading now.

We’ll be back soon with a bagful of reciprocation strategies and techniques, alongside a few really cool studies.

But in the meantime, keep a look out for businesses trying to induce that reciprocity factor…

…and I’ll try to get through all this fruit.

Josh is the Founder of We Imagine Media, an award-winning content marketer, best selling author and creator of the He creates and strategises content, sharing the most successful tactics with his lovely audience. He hates writing in the third person, follow him on the social links so he can get back to writing as himself.

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