Psychological Experiments – Christmas Cards Welcome back to our series “Psychological Experiments and Their Meaning”. This is article five in the series and we are presenting a very important psychological principle called “Reciprocity” using the Christmas Cards experiment. Real-life examples in politics, marketing and international affairs between countries will be sued to present the principle in a powerful yet simple explanation.
Experiment: Christmas Cards
In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz conducted an interesting experiment. He sent handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of him and his family to approximately 600 randomly selected people. All of the recipients of the cards were complete strangers. He received nearly 200 replies. The great majority of those who returned cards never inquired into the identity of the unknown professor. They just felt obligated to return the favor.
In Psychology, This Is Called “The Reciprocity Principle”
The Reciprocity Principle Definition: When you do something nice to someone, s/he will feel compelled to do something nice for you in return. This is innate to all human beings. The power of the reciprocity rule is such that, by first doing us a favor, strange, disliked, or unwelcome others can enhance the chance that we will comply with one of their requests. As you can see, it works both ways.
Real-Life Examples: Christmas Cards
Example (1): Ethiopian Aid
In 1985, Ethiopia was suffering its worst famine that hit the country in a century in northern Ethiopia which led to more than 400,000 deaths. Its economy was in ruin. Its food supply had been ravaged by years of drought and internal war. Its inhabitants were dying by the thousands from disease and starvation. Under these circumstances, people were amazed when Native officials of the Ethiopian Red Cross had decided to send the money to help the victims of that year’s earthquakes in Mexico City.
When asked for an explanation, the answer received from the Ethiopian Red Cross offered eloquent validation of the reciprocity rule:
Despite the enormous needs prevailing in Ethiopia, the money was being sent to Mexico because, in 1935, Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy.
Example (2): Politics
Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, was very successful in getting so many of his programs through Congress during his early administration due to the large score of favors he had been able to provide to other legislators during his many years of power in the House and Senate.
Even members of Congress who were thought to be strongly opposed to the proposals were voting for them because of that overwhelming feeling of indebtedness to him.
Unlike Jimmy Carter who had problems in getting his programs through Congress during his early administration because no one there was indebted to him.
Example (3): The Free Sample
As a marketing technique, a small amount of the relevant product is given to potential customers to see if they like it. Certainly, this is a legitimate desire of the manufacturer to expose the public to the qualities of the product; it can engage the reciprocity rule.
A favorite place for free samples is the supermarket, where customers are frequently given small amounts of a certain product to try. Many people find it difficult to accept samples, return only the cups, and walk away. Instead, they buy some of the product, even if they might not have liked it very much.
We have been taught to live up to the reciprocity rule since we were kids, to give others in return what we once took. We were condemned if we tried to become a freeloader, by taking and not giving back. This hard-wired, pre-programmed reaction is the heart of the reciprocity rule.
French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in describing the social pressures surrounding the gift-giving process in human culture, says that there is an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay. 
The obligation to receive is what makes the rule so easy to exploit. An obligation to receive reduces one’s ability to choose those to whom they wish to be indebted and puts the power in the hands of others.
Christmas Cards Takeaways:
There are many situations where we want compliance or assistance from another person without putting a large amount of pressure on them. In such situations, a favour might be a possible technique for increasing compliance.
Your feedback and participation is highly appreciated.
 Kunz, P. R., & Woolcott, M. (1976). Season’s greetings: From my status to yours.
Social Science Research
 “Ethiopian Red Cross,” 1985
 Mauss, M. (1954). The gift. (I. G. Cunnison, Trans.). London: Cohen and West
Please take time to enjoy other articles exploring psychological experiments in Australia Unwrapped
Part One – Psychological Experiments – Mother Turkey Part Two - Psychological Experiments – Please Part Three - Psychological Experiments – Mating Signals Part Four - Psychological Experiment – Hot and Cold Water
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