What Makes Us Want To Give Back? - Jens Tomas

What Makes Us Want To Give Back?

In the 1970’s one of the Hare Krishna Society’s primary fundraising strategies was to stop passers-by in heavily populated areas (airport terminals were a favourite) and offer them a gift. Sometimes the gift was a copy of the society’s magazine, Back to Godhead – more often simply a flower. Regardless of the gift given, a request to donate quickly followed. Although successful in the short term the Krishna’s success soon waned as people became wise to their smuggled use of this ‘give first-then request’ approach. People would go out of their way to avoid them and some airports banned their presence completely. But even though the Krishna’s use of the reciprocity approach ceased to be effective for them it certainly hasn’t deterred other organizations from attempting to utilize the principle’s power.

Some 40 years later, in an approach that shares some startling similarities to the Krishna’s strategy, Interflora, a network of florists, is scanning Twitter accounts and offering to send flowers to people who, in their allotted 140 characters, Tweet to their friends and followers that they could do with a bit of cheering up.

But could such an approach be effective? And what might it tell us about our influence attempts – especially those that occur across cultural boundaries?

Companies have long known about the power of reciprocity – the idea that by preceeding a request or appeal with a gift they increase the likelihood of a positive response. Supermarkets that offer a free sample of the latest brand of cookie find that this ‘gift’ often leads to increased sales of those brands.

Fundraising organizations understand the power of reciprocity too. The American Disabled Veteran’s Association found that donation rates almost doubled when they included a sheet of personalized address labels in the envelope along with their request for help.

There can be no doubting the powerful influence that the giving of a gift, service or favor can have on the receiver’s likelihood to reciprocate. That is the nature of the ‘golden rule’ that underlies the reciprocity principle.  Every society teaches its citizens from birth not to take without giving back in return.

Perhaps another feature leading to the success of the unsolicited gifts provided by supermarkets and the Disabled Veteran’s Association is the fact that in both cases they will possess some prior knowledge of the target of their gifts. Staff at the supermarket can look out for shoppers who they consider more likely to purchase cookies – those accompanied by children for example – who will no doubt assist the supermarket in their sales endeavours by nagging their parents to buy a box of the cookies that the nice lady gave them to sample. The Disabled Veteran’s Association will likely have prior knowledge of the people on their mailing lists – those that have donated before, those related to servicemen and women and the like.

This prior knowledge allows a campaign to be more accurately targeted and as a result more personally relevant to recipients.

However in the case of the offer of flowers via Twitter much of this prior knowledge is unavailable. People might choose usernames that make them difficult to identify or they may choose images or pictures to represent themselves rather than a photograph. Consequently, clues and information that might be useful in targeting appeals and requests may be less accessible.

Another potential challenge is that given that the worldwide web is ‘worldwide’ those targeted online could originate from a variety of different countries and cultures and, as a result, their responses to the offers of unsolicited gifts may differ.

In a new series of studies about to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Hao Shen, a Professor of Marketing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his colleagues Fang Wan from the University of Winnipeg and Robert Wyer, Jr. at the University of Illinois looked at how cross-cultural differences effect people’s likelihood to accept or refuse unsolicited gifts.

In one study, two groups – one North American and one Asian – were asked to imagine that they had shared a cab to the airport with a colleague who had subsequently offered to pay the fare.  They found that the North American group were significantly more willing to let their colleague pay the fare after they had offered than the Asian group were (26% v 9%).

To address the fact that the first study looked at a gift given by a colleague who was known, the researchers conducted a second study looking at the willingness to accept an unsolicited gift from a stranger. In this study the two groups were presented with an offer of a free sample of soup from a salesperson promoting a new product line in a supermarket. Again the researchers found that the North American group were more likely to accept the offer of the free soup than the Asian group. In fact across a series of five laboratory and field studies the common finding was that Asians were more likely than North Americans to refuse a small gift that is offered to them by a casual acquaintance.

The study authors explored some of the reasons why this might be the case. They suggested that one reason may be due to the more collective nature of Asian cultures where there is a tendency for people to think of themselves more in relation to others. As a result they were more likely to honor the reciprocity rule in exchanging gifts with casual acquaintances and refuse a gift they could not reciprocate. North Americans, by nature of their more individual market-based culture, were more likely to base acceptance of a gift on its attractiveness. As a result an awareness of these subtle differences might be useful in your influence attempts, especially in situations where you are seeking to develop relationships and partnerships with others from different cultures.

However there was one situation where cultural differences flatlined – when the giver and the receiver already shared an existing relationship as close acquaintances or friends.

This last finding points to a potentially important distinction when positioning the gifts, services and information we provide to others. For those we already know well it would seem to make sense to frame our gifts as a symbol and gesture of the desire to continue and strengthen the relationship further –‘after all that is what long term business partners / friends do for each other’.

But when it comes to using a gift giving strategy with those whom we wish to begin relationships – especially cross cultural ones – it becomes particularly important to seek prior knowledge about the gift recipient so that we are better placed to personalize our gifts. And when it comes to offering flowers via Twitter that could present a problem.

Of course the other challenge with the flowers via Twitter strategy is that it is not a ‘gift-giving’ strategy at all but rather an offer of a gift and therefore no obligation to reciprocate is activated. As a result whether the strategy could be successful perhaps raises more questions than answers.

Questions for Discussion & Comment:

  1. What examples of reciprocity have you seen that have been effective in online environments?
  2. When it comes to cross-cultural gift giving what differences in reactions have you experienced?

We would love to hear your thoughts and comments and whilst we can’t promise to send flowers, we’ll certainly be sure to send you our thanks in appreciation.

Sources:

*For a full account of the Krishna strategy see Cialdini, R.B., Influence – Science and Practice 5th Edition (2001, 2009) Allyn & Bacon

Shen, H., Wan, F., & Wyer, Robert S. (2010): Cross-Cultural Differences in the Refusal to Accept a Small Gift: The Differential Influence of Reciprocity Norms on Asians and North Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Forthcoming)

About the Author jens tomas

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