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Chapter 4

The Rule of Obligation -- How to Get Anyone to Do a Favor for You


Nothing is more costly than something given free of charge.


Obligation has been used as a persuasive technique since the beginning of time. Door-to-door salespeople offer free brushes, free encyclopedias, and free estimates in the hope of securing a sale. People throw parties in their homes, serving refreshments and giving away free Tupperware or other products. We all know how hard it is to attend a friend's party, eat their food, take their free gift, and then go home without buying a thing. So, what do we do? We order the cheapest item in the catalog to get rid of the obligation or indebtedness we feel to the host.

During World War I, some soldiers were given a special assignment to make sorties into enemy territory in order to capture and question enemy soldiers. A particularly skilled German soldier was instructed to fulfill one such mission. As he had on numerous other occasions, he negotiated the area between fronts and caught an enemy soldier off guard, eating his lunch alone in a trench. Unaware of what was happening, the startled soldier was easily captured. Not knowing what else to do, the soldier tore off a piece of bread and gave it to his captor. The German was so surprised by the friendly gesture that he couldn't follow through with his assignment. Turning away from the soldier, he headed back into neutral territory and on to face the wrath of his superiors.[1]

Maybe this has happened to you. You are attempting to buy a car and are playing hardball with the sales rep. You've negotiated back and forth and are getting nowhere. You are ready to walk away when he says that he will talk to his manager one last time. As he gets up, he says, "You know, I'm thirsty, so I'm going to get myself a soda. Would you like one?" "Sure!" you say, oblivious to his tactic. He comes back with the soda and a better deal from his manager. It's not the deal you wanted, but you feel it's the best you're going to get. So, you accept it. As you think about it later, it dawns on you that you bought the car because of a subconscious trigger. The moral of the story is to never take a drink from the car sales rep before you've settled on a price. That drink serves as an obligation trigger. You feel indebted to the car dealer because of this small courtesy, and he knows it. He created the obligation with a fifty-cent can of soda. You return the favor and get out of his debt by buying a $20,000 car.

[1]I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Ethology: The Biology of Behavior, 2nd edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston).

Definition of the Rule of Obligation

The Rule of Obligation, also known as "reciprocity," states that when others do something for us, we feel a strong need, even a push, to return the favor. Returning the favor rids us of the obligation created by the first good deed. The adage "one good turn deserves another" seems to be a part of social conditioning in every culture. And, even beyond that, the maxim serves as an ethical code that does not necessarily need to be taught but nevertheless is understood. For example, when someone smiles or gives a compliment, we feel a great need to return the smile or compliment. Even when these gestures are unsolicited, we feel a sense of urgency to repay the person who has created the mental or psychological debt. In some cases, our need to repay this debt is so overwhelming that we end up dramatically exceeding the original favor. The obligation trigger created by the car salesman's soda offer is a classic example of this principle.

People often conscientiously trigger feelings of indebtedness and obligation in others by carrying out an uninvited favor. Even if we don't want or ask for the gift, invitation, or compliment, we still feel the need to return the favor when we receive it. Merely being indebted, even in the slightest sense of the word, can create enough psychological discomfort (and sometimes even public embarrassment) that we go to extraordinary lengths to remove the burdensome obligation we feel. This is when we often disproportionately reward the original giver.

When my family moved to a new area, we gave a small Christmas gift to all our neighbors. I don't think the gifts cost more than five dollars each. We were new on the block and wanted to get to know our neighbors. About thirty minutes after hand-delivering the gifts to our new neighbors, the doorbell rang. There stood one of the neighbors with a large box of truffles in one hand — this box had to have been holding at least fifty dollars worth of chocolates. She said, "Welcome to the neighborhood, and Happy Holidays," and with that she was off and on her way. She couldn't cope with the sudden debt she felt toward my family so, to rid herself of her feelings of obligation, she gave back ten times more than she'd originally received. This is why many people buy extra holiday presents to have on hand just in case someone delivers a gift they did not count on.

The Rule of Obligation also applies when there are favors we wish we could ask, but we know we are not in a position to repay them or perhaps even ask for them in the first place.[2] The psychological and emotional burden created by such circumstances is often great enough that we would rather lose the benefits of the favor by not asking for it at all than experience the embarrassment and likely rejection that might come from asking. For example, a woman who receives expensive gifts from a man may complain that, although she is flattered by and likes getting the gifts, she feels an uncomfortable sense of obligation to repay her suitor. Furthermore, she may express frustration at the perception held by the suitor that, because of his gifts, the woman would or should be more sexually accessible. Studies have shown that the converse is also true: When individuals break the reciprocity rule by showering favors on someone without giving them a chance to repay, there is an equal amount of discomfort.[3]

The drive to alleviate feelings of obligation is so powerful that it can make us bend toward people we don't even know. One university professor chose names at random from a telephone directory, and then sent these complete strangers his Christmas cards. Holiday cards addressed to him came pouring back, all from people who did not know him and, for that matter, who had never even heard of him.[4]

The Rule of Obligation can be used to eliminate animosity or suspicion. In one study, Cornell University researcher Dennis Regan had two individuals try to sell raffle tickets to unsuspecting workers. One individual made a conscientious effort to befriend the workers before attempting to sell any tickets. The other individual made a point of being rude and obnoxious around the workers. While on a break, the individual who had previously been rude to his prospects bought them drinks before trying to get them to buy tickets. The results of the study showed that the rude individual actually sold twice as many raffle tickets, even though the other had been so much nicer and more likable.[5]

On another occasion, a man was stranded on the side of the road because his car had run out of gas. A young man pulled over and identified himself as a friend of the man's daughter. He took the man to get gas and then brought him back to his car. Of course, feeling indebted, the man said, "If you ever need anything, just ask." Three weeks later, capitalizing on the offer, the young man asked if he could borrow the man's expensive car. The man's best judgment screamed, "Are you crazy? You don't know if you can trust this kid to get it back to you in one piece!" But the mental pressure to satisfy his obligation to the young man won out over his better judgment and he loaned the young man his car.

The pressure to reciprocate is strong enough that when people don't return the favor, they are viewed with contempt and disgust. Accepting gifts or favors without attempting to return them is universally viewed as selfish, greedy, and heartless. It is often strictly due to this internal and external pressure that people conform to the rule of reciprocity.

[2]B. M. Depaulo, A. Nadler, and J. D. Fisher, New Directions in Helping. Volume 2: Help Seeking (New York: Academic Press).

[3]K. Gergen, P. Ellsworth, C. Maslach, and M. Seipel, "Obligation, Donor Resources, and Reactions to Aid in Three Cultures," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1975): 390–400.

[4]P. R. Kunz and M. Wolcott, "Seasons Greetings: From My Status to Yours," Social Science Research (1976): 269–278.

[5]Dennis Regan, "Effects of a Favor on Liking and Compliance," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (1991): 627–639.

The Rule of Obligation and Marketing

A film-developing company thrived on the Rule of Obligation. They would send a roll of film in the mail along with a letter explaining that the film was a free gift. The letter then outlined how the recipient should return the film to their company to be processed. Even though a number of local stores could process the film at a far lower price, most people ended up sending it to the company that had sent them the film. The technique worked because the company's "pre-giving" incurred a sense of obligation to repay the favor. We often see this method at work when companies give out complimentary calendars, business pens, T-shirts, or mugs.

The same principle applies when you go to the grocery store and see those alluring sample tables. It is hard to take a free sample and then walk away without at least pretending to be interested in the product. Some individuals, as a means of assuaging their indebtedness, have learned to take the sample and walk off without making eye contact. Some have taken so many samples, they no longer feel an obligation to buy or even pretend they're interested in the products anymore. Still, the technique works, so much so that it has been expanded to furniture and audio/video stores, which offer free pizza, hot dogs, and soft drinks to get you into the store and create instant obligation.

Pre-giving is effective because it makes us feel like we have to return the favor. Greenburg said this feeling of is comfort is created because the favor threatens our independence.[6] The more indebted we feel, the more motivated we are to eliminate the debt. An interesting report from the Disabled American Veterans Organization revealed that their usual 18 percent donation response rate nearly doubled when the mailing included a small, free gift.[7]

A local clothing store offers free pressing as well as free dry cleaning for suits bought in their store. This creates a sense of obligation among their customers, who when they next decide to buy another suit are more likely to buy it from the store that offered the freebie.

Another study found that survey takers could increase physician response to a long questionnaire if they paid the physicians first.[8] When a $20 check was sent along with the questionnaire, 78 percent of the physicians filled it out and sent it back. When the $20 check was promised to arrive after the questionnaire was completed and sent in, only 66 percent followed through. The pre-giving incentive increased the sense of obligation. Another interesting result of the study was this: Of the physicians who received the $20 check in the initial mailing but did not fill out the questionnaire, only 26 percent cashed the check. Of the physicians receiving the $20 check who did fill out the questionnaire, 95 percent cashed the check![9]

This demonstrates that the Rule of Obligation works conversely, as well. The fact that many of the physicians who did not fill out the questionnaire also did not cash their checks may be interpreted as a sign of their psychological and emotional discomfort at accepting a favor that they were not going to return. If they cashed the checks, they would have to cope with their indebtedness by complying and filling out the questionnaire. Rather than take on that uncomfortable sense of obligation or indebtedness, it was easier to sacrifice the benefit of gaining $20 altogether.

The Rule of Obligation also presents itself in the following situations:

[6]M. S. Greenburg, "A Theory of Indebtedness," Social Exchange: Advances in Theory and Research 3: 26.

[7]Bob Stone, Successful Direct Marketing Methods (Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Business Books), p. 92.

[8]S. H. Berry and D. E. Kanouse, "Physician Response to a Mailed Survey: An Experiment in Timing of Payment," Public Opinion Quarterly (1987): 102–114.


Fundraising and the Rule of Obligation

In the early 1980s, the Hare Krishna movement encountered difficulty in raising funds through their traditional means. The rebellion of the 1960s had given way to the more conservative 1980s, and the Hare Krishna members were now considered almost an affliction to society. To counteract negative public opinion, they developed a new approach that utilized the Rule of Obligation. Their new fundraising strategy worked because it prompted a sense of obligation that outweighed the dislike or negativity felt toward the Hare Krishna movement.

The new strategy still involved solicitation in crowded, public places, but now, instead of being asked directly for a donation, the potential donor was first given a free gift — a flower. If someone tried to turn it down, the Krishna follower would, under no circumstances, take it back. The Krishna gift-giver might say, "Sir, this is a free gift for you to keep, and we welcome donations." Often the gifts just ended up in the trash cans, but overall, the strategy worked. In most cases, even individuals who ended up throwing the gifts away donated something. Although lots of people were extremely annoyed by the high-pressure gift giving, their sense of obligation to reciprocate was too strong to ignore.

Some of the movement's followers, looking like your normal, energetic college students, would hand out books. People graciously accepted the offer before realizing they were deep into obligation. Playing on their sense of indebtedness, the requesters would then ask for a donation. The process worked like a charm. When someone tried to give the book back, the Krishnas would not take it back, it being a gift. Others would leave upset but the pair would follow them in hot pursuit. I observed that most of the people felt an obligation to donate money in exchange for the free gift presented to them, whether or not they wanted it.

Applying the Rule of Obligation

This is a very simple law to implement. All you need to do is create a need or obligation in the mind of the other person. Think to yourself of what you can do, give, or say that would create that indebtedness in the mind of your prospect.

As you think of the perfect persuasive situation, include one or more of the following items to help you create a greater sense of obligation: a service of some sort, information or concessions, secrets, favors, gestures, compliments, smiles, gifts, invitations, attention, or your time. Any one, or a combination of several, of these will create a need to reciprocate in your prospect — as long as your act is perceived as altruistic. If, however, your pre-giving is read as manipulating, bribing, or "tricking," it will understandably not be met with much compliance.

Take caution with this strategy. The use of obligation will backfire if your prospect sees your actions as a bribe to comply. Feeling tricked, your prospect will not be pressured to comply or reciprocate. "When pre-giving is perceived as a bribe or a pressure tactic, it actually decreases compliance."[10]The obligation you create must be perceived as an unselfish act.

[10]R. M. Groves, R. B. Cialdini, and M. P. Couper, "Understanding the Decision to Participate in a Survey," Public Opinion Quarterly 56: 475– 495.

Reciprocal Concessions

Researchers have found that when someone persuades you to change your mind, they will be inclined to do the same if approached by you. Conversely, if you resist that person's attempts and do not change your mind, then he will likely reciprocate in a similar fashion, resisting your attempts to change his mind. Consider how you can use this to your advantage if you approach a person with whom you wish to deal in the future and say something like, "You know, I got to thinking about what you said, and you're really right. . ."

Give a Favor, Expect a Favor in Return

Before a negotiation, it is wise to offer some sort of gift. Note, however, that offering the gift before and not during the negotiation is of prime importance, or your token will come across as bribery. Your gift will almost always be accepted, even if only out of social custom and courtesy. Whether your recipient likes or wants your gift or not, the psychological need to reciprocate will take root, increasing the likelihood that your request will be met affirmatively. Of course, even when giving the gift before you make your request, be sure your motives come across as a sincere effort to help the recipient rather than yourself.

Secrets Create Obligation: The Secret of Secrets

Everybody loves secrets. We all love to be in the know. When you share something personal or private with another person, you create an instant bond and sense of obligation and trust with them. For example, imagine saying in the middle of a negotiation, "Off the record, I think you should know. . . ." or, "I shouldn't be telling you this, but. . . ." These statements show that you are confiding in your listener. By offering him inside knowledge, you've created a sense of intimacy and made your listener feel important. Your listener will feel a need, and often even the desire, to reciprocate the information or to share something personal about himself in return. He will begin to open up and share useful information with you.

Judges especially have to deal with their jurors being influenced by "secret information." Attorneys often strategically introduce information that the jury really isn't supposed to evaluate. When this happens, the judge can either declare a mistrial or tell the jury to ignore the information. In most cases, the jury is told to ignore the information, but the perpetual dilemma is that doing so heightens the information's validity in the minds of the jury members. In an exhaustive study on this issue by the University of Chicago Law School, a jury was to decide the amount of damages in an injury lawsuit. When the professor made it known that the defendant had been insured against the loss, the damages went up 13 percent. When the judge told the jury they had to ignore the new information, the amount went up 40 percent.[11]

Be extra careful not to plead and beg for your prospects to open up. Let them know you truly care and have a desire to know out of genuine concern, not curiosity. Pleading quickly becomes a red flag that shows your prospects you just want to know the juicy details rather than having any real desire to help them. As with the other Rules of Persuasion, be sincere by showing you really care and truly have their best interest at heart.

[11] D. Broeder, "The University of Chicago Jury Project," Nebraska Law Review (1959): 744–760.


The Rule of Obligation can backfire on you or become a matter of ethics if it's used for the wrong reasons. Manipulation is the flip side of obligation. If you use obligation to manipulate, I guarantee that you will lose your ability to persuade. People will catch on to your tactics, quickly declining any gifts you might offer or even refusing to be around you. Your gifts will be perceived as set-ups. People will instinctively know that it's only a matter of time before you come back around asking for that favor to be reciprocated.

Understand that there is a great difference between obligation and coercion. To become an excellent Persuader you must first master yourself. It is essential that you have a foundation on which to build.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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