In December of 1974, Phillip Kunz and his wife sat down to write their annual Christmas cards. To some people, they wrote short notes. Other cards included a family photograph. Each envelope included their return address in the upper left hand corner. The Kuntz’s mailed hundreds of Christmas cards that year – most of them to complete strangers.
At the time, Kunz was employed as a sociologist with Brigham Young University. The 600 cards he mailed to people he had never met were part of an experiment. Their names were pulled at random from the phone books of nearby towns. “It was just, you know, a shot in the dark,” he said. He simply wanted to know what would happen.
A few days later, Kunz got his answer. A Christmas card from one of the random strangers appeared in his mailbox. Then another showed up, and another. Soon he was receiving around a dozen cards each day. Some people sent photos of their own, while others took the time to write expressions of friendship. A few included letters; page after page of updates on families he didn’t even know.
What Kunz had experienced was a phenomena called the Law of Reciprocity. It’s one of the unwritten rules that govern human interactions. This law says that we are obligated to repay a kindness that someone else shows to us. And this rule is universal – there’s not a culture on the planet that doesn’t subscribe to it.
From an early age, we are all trained to reciprocate when someone does something nice for us. When someone greets us in the hallway, we’re taught to say hello in return. If a door is held open for us, we seek to hold the next one open in return. It’s so ingrained in us, that we usually don’t even think about it. We just react.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini has done extensive research into the power of subtle triggers like this. He’s found that the law of reciprocation extends beyond our social interactions into business ones as well. For instance, he found that restaurant servers who provide a mint along with the check receive tips that are about 3% higher than those who just deliver the check. What he found particularly interesting was that a second mint, presented personally while looking the customer in the eye, sent tips “through the roof.” Those servers received 20% more in tips than their counterparts.
Cialdini’s research illuminates an interesting aspect of this law. Not only are we driven to repay a kindness that’s been extended to us, but our repayment tends to be exponentially higher than that which we received. Think about it, does a dinner mint really warrant a tip 20% larger than normal? Apparently, it does.
As a kid, I was told “It’s better to give than receive.” My parents said it, my grandparents did too. I heard it in Sunday school and from most of the people I trusted.
I didn’t understand that until I got older and found myself in a position to help out friends, family, and kids of my own. But it feels good to give. Various scientific studies have even confirmed the existence of the “helper’s high.” When we extend a kindness to someone else, our brains light up in the same regions that are activated when we receive a gift ourselves. And the effect is actually more intense than what we experience as a recipient.
Naturally, there’s a catch. In order for the law of reciprocity to kick in, the initial gift has to be perceived as genuine. The second we realize that the extra mint isn’t a sincere act on the part of our server, but rather a ploy to encourage larger tips, all bets are off. The gift actually works against you at this point. I’m likely to leave smaller tip (a lot smaller) than normal if I perceive the server is attempting to manipulate me.
But there’s more…
There’s another phenomenon at play here called the Halo Effect. When we take the initiative to offer a kind gesture, it naturally makes the recipient feel good. They not only appreciate the gift, but their view of the giver in that moment is extremely positive. The Halo Effect means that the positive impression we’ve made carries over to other actions we take. The initial act of kindness makes everything else we do appear that much more significant.
Let’s recap for a second:
- Receiving a gift feels good.
- Sincere giving feels better than receiving.
- Receiving creates positive general feelings about the giver.
- Receiving creates a sense of obligation to repay the giver.
- The reciprocal benefit is likely to be of much greater value than what we gave.
What goes around, comes around – big time. Can you imagine the impact on our business if we’d all focus less on what we had to gain from a prospect or a customer, and put our focus on what have to offer them? I’m not talking about giving away the store here. Small acts of sincere kindness result in huge returns.
Why isn’t this our business model? Why aren’t we all giving more?