So, the season of Joy is upon us, tills are ringing and the Christmas cards are beginning to drop onto the doormat. But hark, amongst the first to arrive – a card from who else but… Screwfix.com.
Ok – I know what you’re up to Screwfix. Sending me a Christmas card in an attempt to seem like you have feelings for me like other senders of Christmas cards do (representativeness heuristic). I won’t fall for your thinly veiled attempt to influence your brand availability in my mind.
But is there also something else at work here? Could Screwfix.com’s Christmas card also be exploiting the norm of reciprocation?
Reciprocation is the sense that we are expected to give something in return for something. It obliges us to repay others for what we have received from them and is one of the strongest social forces in human cultures (Gouldner, 1960)
It’s not a new concept and has been valued for many 1000’s of years – the Roman writer Cicero spoke of it and the Ancient Greeks based their system of law on it.
However reciprocation can be used to influence people’s behaviour (Cialdini et al, 2004). By giving something to someone, a donor can use the recipient’s perceived obligation to get something back. This sense of obligation is deeply ingrained. It even applies if the receiver knows that the donor won’t find out if they reciprocated in some way (Whatley et al, 1999). Is it possible that by receiving a Christmas card from Screwfix.com, i may feel an increased sense that i owe them something, for example loyalty as a customer?
Despite the apparent power or reciprocity, how strongly people perceive the need to reciprocate varies. People receiving an anonymous Christmas card are more likely to reciprocate if the Christmas card is printed on quality card (Kunz et al, 1976) than on an inferior card. This suggests that the perceived ‘cost’ incurred by the donor may be a factor in how motivated recipients are to reciprocate. A recent test (Meier, 2016) was unable to repeat these results as the response rate was so low and postulated that this may be the result of changing attitudes towards strangers.
The 1976 study by Kunz et al also found that the perceived social status of the sender also increased the likelihood of response compared with people who received cards with no indication of the senders social status. This may work in a social context (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs cites ‘Respect by Others’ as a secondary need) however in the case of Screwfix.com, it is unlikely to be a motivator. Interestingly, we also support the Dogs Trust Charity and they too sent a Christmas card. However this is a very personalised card and written in the form of a personal Christmas letter from the dog to us. This could potentially tap into a more emotional relationship and also the social needs of family as pets are often perceived as family members (Cain, AO, 1985).
I am already a Screwfix customer, so would the Christmas card be more likely to evoke a sense of reciprocation in me? Although liking does affect behaviours towards an individual or brand, reciprocation is not dependent on this. Investigators asked people to look at paintings, some of whom were given a free coke by an experimenter to induce reciprocation. The likeability of the experimenter had been manipulated beforehand so that some of the people liked the experimenter whereas other didn’t. The targets were then asked if they would buy some raffle tickets from the experimenter. The results showed that the sense of reciprocation didn’t rely on whether or not the people liked the experimenter (Regan et al, 1971).
However the drive to reciprocate fades with time. People given a free drink were happy to reciprocate when asked to deliver a letter for the donor 5 minutes later, however, after a weeks delay, there was no measureable desire to return the favour (Burger et al, 1997).
On balance, in light of the short lived effect of reciprocation, i feel the card from Screwfix.com is unlikely to evoke a reciprocal response in recipients. The low quality card and brief message suggesting that little expense has been invested adds to this. If it does have a behavioural impact, the Screwfix.com Christmas card is more likely to work by increasing mental availability of the brand. It is still a clever marketing tactic as recipients are more likely to process the message due to the novel format and the representativeness heuristic. It could also be perceived as a legitimate reason for a brand to get in touch – after all, everybody likes to be thanked – and this exposure can help increase liking through the Mere Exposure Effect (Zajonc, 1968).
Burger, J. M., Horita, M., Kinoshita, L., Roberts, K., & Vera, C. (1997). Effects on time on the norm of reciprocity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19(1), 91-100. Chicago
Cain, A. O. (1985). Pets as family members. Marriage & Family Review, 8(3-4), 5-10.
Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 55, 591-621.
Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American sociological review, 161-178.
Kunz, P. R., & Woolcott, M. (1976). Season’s greetings: From my status to yours. Social Science Research, 5(3), 269-278.
Meier, B. P. (2016). Bah humbug: Unexpected Christmas cards and the reciprocity norm. The Journal of social psychology, 1-6.
Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(6), 627-639.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1975). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. In Utility, probability, and human decision making (pp. 141-162). Springer Netherlands.
Whatley, M. A., Webster, J. M., Smith, R. H., & Rhodes, A. (1999). The effect of a favor on public and private compliance: How internalized is the norm of reciprocity?. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21(3), 251-259.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.