Reciprocity and Commitment and Consistency: A Good Way to Get Things Done, A Bad Way to Make Friends?Posted: April 4, 2012
Two principles of social influence are reciprocity and commitment and consistency. These two principles have been backed up by plenty of empirical evidence showing that they are effective ways to influence others’ behavior, but they both rely on what we might label as “deceitful” strategies. So while the use of these principles may be a great way to get what you want out of others, is there some sort of downside or backlash that comes from the use of these principles?
First, let’s do a quick introduction to reciprocity and commitment and consistency (C & C). Reciprocity is a concept that holds that we feel obligated to reciprocate when someone gives us something. This was exemplified through a study by Dennis Regan in 1971 in which a confederate either gave or didn’t give a subject a free Coke before a sham study, then asked the subject after the study if he/she wanted to buy raffle tickets. Subjects who received the free Coke bought raffle tickets 2 times more than those who didn’t, presumably because they felt obligated to reciprocate because of the free Coke.
Commitment and consistency is the concept that states that once you make a decision (commitment), there is pressure to behave in-line with that decision (consistency). One example of this is the low-ball technique, in which car salespeople offer a really good price on the car, let the prospective buyer take it home and drive it around while they think about the potential purchase. During this, the salespeople are running the paperwork, and call the buyer, saying that they made a mistake with the pricing, and it is actually a higher price, which is no longer a really good deal. However, because the buyer already has the car with them at home, has driven it around, and generally gotten used to the idea of having the car, they tend to pay the higher price anyway. In this, they have made the commitment by having the car with them at home, doing the things they would be doing if the bought the car, so even when the price is raised, they stay consistent to that behavior.
So these two concepts lead to some very effective social influence, but is there some sort of cost to this effective social influence? Because of the ways in which these concept are deployed, whoever is trying to do the influencing risks doing harm to their relationship to the person they are trying to influence. This isn’t a problem if you aren’t interested in maintaining a relationship, but if you are, you might not necessarily want to employ reciprocity and commitment and consistency. Reciprocity often involves placing an uninvited debt on the influence target. In the Coke study, the free Coke was never asked for by the subject, but when it was given, it came with a debt. With commitment and consistency, most of the potentially problematic elements are related to the commitment. Obviously, the low-ball technique is a fairly insidious way to induce a commitment, as in the example of the car salesperson, they are intentionally deceiving the buyer to get the car home with him, sealing that commitment. I think that if the influence target is aware (or made aware) of the process going on, like if they realize in reciprocity that they never asked for the first favor, or that in C & C that they did not actually want to make a commitment, it could lead to resentment of the person who is employing the social influence concepts. So maybe take a second before you try to influence someone, and consider what happens to your relationship with that person as a result.