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Last week I promised to share a few of the general principles covered in HFI’s new 3-day course on “How to Design for Persuasion, Emotion and Trust”. This is the first of this mini-series.

One of the more interesting persuasion techniques is the “Reciprocity Principle”. This is one of many techniques that isn’t strictly logical. Reciprocating is something we do instinctively.

As a species, we’re naturally wired to reciprocate when someone does us a favor. It’s part of our social evolution, dating back to when we lived in tribes and sharing food, talent, tools, etc. was necessary for our survival. Over countless generations, this behavior has become wired into our subconscious decision-making process. So much so, it’s hard not to do it!

To this day, when someone gives us something, we feel an urge to give something back. Think of people handing out flowers then asking for a donation. It’s pretty hard to say no if you’ve accepted the flower!

So if you want people to buy something from you, do them a favor! Give them a free product or service — or make a charitable donation on their behalf — without condition. Then (if it’s not already obvious) let them know you’ve already done them the favor, and see if they aren’t much more likely to respond to your offers.

How does this apply to the web? Lots of ways. Obvious examples include free whitepapers, instructional videos, etc.

A surprising extension of this principle is that it also applies to “accepting a no”. Here’s how it works:

  • Ask for something big (more than you really want).
  • Gracefully accept the “no” when in inevitably comes.
  • Then ask for something small — the thing you really wanted in the first place.

It’s been proven in several studies that people will be much more likely to give you the little thing than if you’d just asked for it in the first place.

Here’s a concrete example, a kid who wants $10 from his dad:

  • “Dad, can I have $50?”
  • “Nope.”
  • “That’s okay, I understand it’s a lot. Could I have maybe $10??”
  • “Yeah, okay…”

This isn’t really rational, but it works. Why? Because accepting a “no” is a kind of gift! In a sense, you’re doing the giver a favor by not pressing the point and making him uncomfortable. As a result, he’ll be more inclined to return that “favor” if you make it easy by asking for something small.

Diabolical, isn’t it?