The 25 Cognitive Biases: Reciprocation Tendency

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What is the reciprocation tendency? How can reciprocity be harmful?

The reciprocation tendency is the inclination of humans to reciprocate both favors and harm done to them. The reciprocation of favors enhances social cohesion and group cooperation, while the reciprocation of harm deters bad behavior in the future. Reciprocity can be harmful when the tendency is exploited by manipulators who use small concessions to demand big favors.

Read on to learn more about the reciprocation tendency.

What Is the Reciprocation Bias?

It is also known as the foot-in-door technique.

Humans reciprocate both favors and disfavors (or harm) done to them.

For example, psychological experiments show that asking someone for a huge favor (and getting rejected), then asking for a smaller favor increases the compliance rate, compared to asking for the small favor right away. This is because asking for a smaller favor looks like you’re making a concession, and the other person is willing to reciprocate.

  • In a specific example, asking people to supervise a group of juvenile delinquents on a zoo trip for one afternoon gets 1 out of 6 agreements. In contrast, asking people to supervise the group weekly for 2 years gets a 0% acceptance rate, but then lowering the request to just one afternoon of supervision gets the rate up to 50%.
  • The Watergate scandal purportedly began with such a reciprocation. One subordinate in the Republican Party pitched an extreme plan to scandalize the other party that consisted of prostitutes and a yacht. The plan was rejected; the subordinate conceded and asked merely for a burglary of the DNC, and the attorney general went along.

Reciprocation for disfavors done to you is also known as retaliation. 

  • If we’re all of the same species, shouldn’t we help each other survive instead of retaliating against each other? Scientists who study ants find that different colonies fight each other, even if they’re of the same species. This suggests that there is no general genetic algorithm that lets people turn the other cheek just because it might help the species survive.

Why It Evolved

The reciprocation tendency evolved because responding in kind to good behavior allows for group cooperation. Reciprocating bad behavior serves as a mutual deterrent from either party behaving badly.

How It Can Be Harmful

The reciprocation tendency can be exploited by manipulators. They’ll demonstrate a small favor to you, then ask for a big concession from you. For example, a car salesman might give you a free cup of coffee, which subconsciously prompts you to spend thousands of dollars more. This can be especially abused if you’re buying with someone else’s money, like an employer or the government, and thus won’t be as tight with your purse strings.

On the other side, the reciprocation tendency can cause harmful behaviors to be reciprocated to extremes, as in warfare. If one side adopts a take-no-prisoners attitude and kills every other enemy combatant, the other side will quickly adopt the same posture.

Examples of the Reciprocation Tendency

Examples of reciprocating good behavior:

  • Economic trade uses both self-interest and reciprocation.
  • Wars sometimes have bizarre pauses in fighting, which one side shows a favor to another.
  • Much religious behavior tries to reciprocate favor from the gods. Examples include a general emphasis in many religions on good deeds, or Aztec sacrifices.

Examples of reciprocating bad behavior:

  • Acting on road rage is reciprocating a perceived Kantian unfairness, such as when someone cuts in front of you.


To reciprocate good behavior more:

  • Feel guilt. Guilt arises from the conflict between self-interest and the tendency to reciprocate good behavior.
  • Look to please someone else first, rather than to be pleased.

To avoid retaliating:

  • Train yourself to defer reaction. You can always tell the person off tomorrow, if it’s such a good idea.

To avoid having your reciprocation tendency exploited:

  • Don’t let employees accept any favors from vendors.
  • Be cognizant of exploitative favors, like how car salesmen treat you, and try to discount that behavior (cynically, think, “he’s only doing this since I’m giving him money.”) Also, go into the negotiation with a hardline price so that little tricks don’t sway you.
Charlie Munger: The Reciprocation Tendency

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  • Why you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at to make decisions
  • Descriptions of the 25 psychological biases that distort how you see the world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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