Reciprocity is a social norm that involves in-kind exchanges between people—responding to another’s action with another equivalent action. It is usually positive (e.g. returning a favor), but it can also be negative (e.g. punishing a negative action) (Fehr & Gächter, 2000). Reciprocity is an interesting concept from the perspective of behavioral economics, because it does not involve an economic exchange, and it has been studied by means of experimental games (see behavioral game theory). Organizations often apply reciprocity norms in practice. Charities take advantage of reciprocity if they include small gifts in solicitation letters (e.g. Falk, 2007), while hospitals may ask former patients for donations (e.g. Chuan et al., 2018).

Reciprocity is also used as a social influence tool in the form of ‘reciprocal concessions’, an approach also known as the ‘door-in-the-face’ technique. It occurs when a person makes an initial large request (e.g. to buy an expensive product), followed up by a smaller request (e.g. a less expensive option), if the initial request is denied by the responder. The responder then feels obligated to ‘return the favor’ by agreeing to the conceded request (Cialdini et al., 1975).


Chuan, A., Kessler, J. B., & Milkman, K. L. (2018). Field study of charitable giving reveals that reciprocity decays over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(8), 1766-1771.

Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 206-215.

Falk, A. (2007). Gift exchange in the field. Econometrica, 75, 1501-1511.

Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2000). Fairness and retaliation: The economics of reciprocity. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14, 159-181.