Sunday, November 16, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Reciprocity

The following essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.  Because I am publishing a book on this topic in 2015, posts will be significantly edited due to potential copyright conflicts.

Handing out a cupcake for conversation pulls on reciprocity norms

November is World Vegan Month. To contribute to this month's activities, each day I will be presenting a social psychological concept or theory applied to abolitionist Nonhuman Animal rights. I began this series with a discussion of persuasion. Explorations into persuasion can be divided into research on the messenger,messagechannel, and audience. Thus far, I have discussed what makes for an effective messengerwhat channels are most appropriate, and some ways to improve the message. Yesterday, I discussed the tendency for people to blame victims of bad events or structural oppression, while giving themselves credit for the good things that happen to them. Today I discuss a common social norm that encourages people to reciprocate a favor.

The reciprocity norm suggests that we are likely to help those who have helped us in the past.  The feeling of reciprocity can be increased if the relationship is a sustained one. It can still occur even when the responses can be given anonymously.

Reciprocity has its limits.  Don't go door-to-door handing out one hundred dollar bills, and then come back a week later and ask them to go vegan (though, it's possible this might work!).  Not everyone has the ability to reciprocate adequately or at all. Advocates should be careful to utilize this technique only in ways that will not threaten the self-esteem of the recipients.  Offers and subsequent expectations should be relatively modest.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Give a little, get a little
  • Don't apply this norm to those who can't reciprocate, it may backfire


Burger, J., J. Sanchez, J. Imberi, and L. Grande. 2009.  "The Norm of Reciprocity as an Internalized Social Norm:  Returning Favors Even When No One Finds Out. "  Social Influence 4:  11-17.

Gouldner, A.  1960.  "The Norm of Reciprocity:  A Preliminary Statement."  American Sociological Review 25:  161-178.

Myers, D. 2013. Social Psychology, 11th ed. McGraw Hill.

Nadler, A. and J. Fisher. 1986.  "The Role of Threat to Self-Esteem and Perceived Control in Recipient Reaction to Help:  Theory Development and Empirical Validation."  In I. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 19).  Orlando, FL:  Academic Press.

Newsom, J.  1999.  "Another Side to Caregiving:  Negative Reactions to Being Helped."  Institute on Aging.  Portland State University.