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“A few years ago, a university professor tried a little experiment. He sent Christmas cards to a sample of perfect strangers. Although he expected some reaction, the response he received was amazing—holiday cards addressed to him came pouring back from people who had never met nor heard of him. The great majority of those who returned cards never inquired into the identity of the unknown professor” (Cialdini, pg 17).

This is a perfect example of the rule of reciprocity, detailed in Dr. Robert Chialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition. Influence delineates several “principles of persuasion.” Its insights are profound. This post shall cover the first of these principles: Reciprocation.

But first, I want to make one thing clear:

Interpersonal communication comes before forensic communication.

Whenever we’re speaking with a family member or friend, particularly during times of personal conflict, we ask ourselves these questions as they pertain to interpersonal communication:

  • What am I communicating?
  • Why am I communicating this?
  • How am I communicating?

The first question determines our words. Simply put, we think about what we say.

The second question determines our intentions. In other words, we think about what we want.

The third question determines our style. Essentially, we think about how to use the answer to the first question to achieve the answer to the second question.

Whenever speaking in front of a judge, speakers and debaters constantly ask themselves these questions as they pertain to forensic communication:

  • What am I trying to persuade?
  • Why am I trying to persuade?
  • How am I trying to persuade?

The first question determines the subject matter of the speaker (logos).

The second question determines the intentions of the speaker (ethos).

The third question determines the manner by which the speaker persuades (pathos).

As you can see, the two are very similar. The reality is that forensics is based off of interpersonal communication. Unfortunately, little attention is given to the fact that the ethics of interpersonal communication can be used to persuade in forensic communication. As we shall see, the psychology of interpersonal behavior reveals a wide range of tools that can persuade in both contexts. Not only that, but it shows that behaving in an ethical manner leads to persuasion in both contexts.

Back to the rule of reciprocity.

This rule says that we feel obligated to repay, in kind, what other people provide us. This could be a gift, invitation, or favor. Cialdini reports that, “There is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule,” and cultural anthropologists note reciprocation – a sense of future obligation – is unique to human beings (18).

There are two motivations behind the rule that pressures us. The first is external. As Cialdini explains, “Because there is a general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered one of their numbers” (20). People who don’t conform to the reciprocity rule are disliked by society. So strong is the conformist feeling that we sometimes agree to an unequal exchange – in which the favor we return is greater in value than the one we receive – to avoid stigmatization. The other motivation is internal shame. We feel guilty when someone else does us a favor and we have the opportunity to return the favor but don’t. We feel we do them a disservice, even if we have good reasons for declining. “Most of us find it highly disagreeable to be in a state of obligation. It weighs heavily on us and demands to be removed” (35).

It’s obvious that someone who likes you is more likely to perform favors for you. But what’s not so obvious is that obligation is a stronger influence than liking. According to research, people will voluntarily perform a favor for someone, even if they dislike him/her, if they feel obligated to do so.

Now I understand why, at college fairs, solicitation booths, or commercial events, the organizers hand out candy, coupons, pens, and other trinkets. Restaurants and groceries may offer ‘free samples’. There are two purposes in doing so. First, it exposes the public to the quality of a product. But second, it induces them to reciprocate.  Most people are aware of the first, but don’t realize the second. The marketers hope consumers will reciprocate – with their wallets!

People are more likely to support an organization or cause if it has done something for them, which is more persuasive than the hope that they will do something for them in the future. Another application: If you want a donation from a business, try donating to them first.

We also see reciprocation with politicians all the time. Formally, it is known as ‘quid pro quo’. In more common terms, we call it corruption.

Or just look at the news (emphasis added): “Flynn had resisted doing so for months, given his close ties with the Trump administration. But he apparently felt abandoned by the administration in recent weeks…” Feelings of loyalty (among other things) kept Flynn from testifying: when he felt “abandoned by the administration,” the sense of obligation disapparated.

The rule can also manifest itself through reciprocal concessions. A person who concedes something of value to another is often seen as ‘giving up’ something of value. Thus, the other person feels obligated to make a concession as well, and other people may expect him or her to do so. We value goals we hold in common, and concessions, even if they are not actually in your interest, are seen as another’s willingness to sacrifice himself for common goals.

The rule of reciprocity is prevalent and powerful.

Applications To Debate

Think of the implications of this rule, both in debate and in real-life. Here is a short list. None of these will guarantee that your endeavors to persuade will be successful, but they increase the likelihood.

  • Understand that kindness persuades. As much as we wouldn’t like to believe it (especially if you have ever received a reason-for-decision that was justified on personal and not logical reasons), communication is, first and foremost, personal. People decide what they want to do first, and then justify their initial presupposition. Always give people a reason to want to like you and support you.
  • Demonstrate how the idea you’re communicating is not only beneficial in general but is beneficial to your audience.
  • Coupled with the previous suggestion, utilize historical precedence for an idea because doing so shows the audience they don’t have to hold blind faith in that idea.
  • Make concessions in your argumentation.
  • Whenever possible, and as much as you can, extend courtesies and kindness to your opponent and to your audience. Be proactive, not reactive, in your behavior.
  • A kind deed is remembered days, weeks, months, and even years after it is performed. The same with unkind deeds. Compare this to argumentation. How much more likely is it that a brilliant argument will be remembered after a certain point? Reputation and character > logos and argumentation.

Morality Informs Persuasion

I cannot discuss this psychology without discussing the Christian principles that underpin it. Reciprocity has foundations in basic morality. Hypocrisy is wrong. Kindness is good. Reciprocity encourages us to abandon the former and embrace the latter.

Reciprocity is also known as the Golden Result. As Ken Sande writes in The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, “The Golden Result is a corollary to the Golden Rule, which calls us to do to others as we would have them do to us. The Golden Result says that people will usually treat us as we treat them” (78). As we have seen, modern psychology documents the veracity of the Golden Result.

And remember, folks: while forensic persuasion does not lead to interpersonal persuasion, interpersonal persuasion leads to forensic persuasion.

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