In Netflix’s House of Cards, Frank Underwood is a conniving, calculating and ruthless politician who has sights fixed firmly on power. He understands that favours lead to personal indebtedness, and those under his thumb often find themselves doing things that they would never otherwise do. How does this happen? How can the burden of personal debt cause otherwise intelligent people to go against their own better judgement? It has to do with the power of reciprocity. This is how it works.
The benevolent, unexpected “gift”
The most important element to the exchange is that it occurs under the pretext of a “gift”. The favour is never offered in immediate exchange for a good or service. There are “no strings” attached. But don’t be fooled – the strings are there, whether or not they do get pulled. Just ask Peter Russo.
Enforced indebtedness (i.e. don’t take “no” for an answer)
Another important quality of the “gift” is that it should never be refused. Hare Krishnas were successful in financing hundreds of centres in the United States throughout the 70s thanks to this strategy. Intercepting travelers at busy airports, the Krishnas would press a flower into your hands, emphasizing that it was a gift – and not allow you to refuse it. Only once you had accepted their gift would they casually let you know that they were “accepting donations”. Most people would buckle under the rule of reciprocity and reach for whatever coins they had in their pockets.
Small favour, big return
A key characteristic of the rule of reciprocity, and one that Frank Underwood understands quite well, is that the debt of a personal favour can lead to much bigger returns. In one study, two subjects were instructed to look at pieces of art in a room. After a short “break” in the experiment, one participant (who wasn’t really a subject at all) came back into the room with two cans of Coke, saying to the other participant: “I asked the experimenter if I could buy myself a Coke. He said ‘yes’ so I bought you one too”. Invariably, the second participant accepted the Coke – the money had already been spent, and it was an appropriate gift, given the circumstances. A few moments later, however, the participant who gave the Coke would mention to the other participant that he was selling raffle tickets, “Would you like to buy some? Any would help, the more the better.” In a series of these experiments conducted by Prof. Dennis Regan of Cornell University, the request following the Coke invariably produced twice as many sales as the request when no Coke had been offered.
When you consider that the price of a raffle ticket in the experiment was over five times the value of a can of Coke, it becomes clear that these types of personal favours can easily lead to an unfair exchange. It is a powerful manifestation of the rule of reciprocity.
Impervious to time lapse
Another important characteristics of the rule of reciprocity is that it does not decay over time. Months and even years can go by before the giver decides to take back. President Lyndon Johnson was enormously successful in getting his programs through congress. Many analysts believe that his ability to produce such a remarkable amount of legislation in such a short period of time was due to the large score of favours he had been able to provide to other politicians during his time in office. When he became president, he was able to call those favours in.
In another interesting example, actress Sally Kellerman, best known for her supporting role in the movie M.A.S.H., once endorsed democratic hopeful Jerry Brown on the basis that “20 years ago, I asked ten friends to help me move. He was the only one who showed up.”
The risk of social shame
The internal moral discomfort that compels people to return personal favours is exacerbated by the perceived social shame that is inexorably linked to those who do not repay their debts. A real social stigma is tied to this kind of behaviour. Many women will feel an uncomfortable obligation if they accept a drink from a stranger at a bar. We will often give back more than what is needed in the name of reciprocity.
Understanding the rule of reciprocity makes you impervious to its power. When you can spot this type of persuasion being applied to you, it becomes much easier to simply say, “thank you so much for your offer, but ‘no’”.
 The examples provided in this article are taken from Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Power of Persuasion.