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posted on 12 August 2017

The Rule Of Reciprocity

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An Investigator's Guide To Ethics, Part 5

If you can, try to remember the last time someone gave you an unexpected gift as well as the emotions that followed it. Do you remember some combination of being surprised, happy and/or thankful? How long did those feelings last before a stronger urge replaced those initial emotions?


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If you are like most of us, you probably patted your pockets, looked in your purse, and even went through a mental checklist of available items in your immediate possession that you could potentially offer to the gift giver in return. If you had nothing to offer, your joy likely became tinged with pangs of guilt.

This phenomenon has been studied by people throughout the years and has been referred to as the rule of reciprocity, a natural need to honor a favor by returning something of equal value. The rule of reciprocity has been ingrained in all of us since we were children according to Robert Cialdini, a leading social psychologist from Arizona State University.

“If someone passes you in the hall and says hello, you feel compelled to return their greeting. When you don’t, you notice it, it makes you uncomfortable, out of balance. That’s the rule of reciprocation. There’s not a single human culture that fails to train its members in this rule."[1]

This compulsion to return favors is evidenced by an experiment done by sociologist Phillip Kunz in 1974. During that year, Kunz and his family received hundreds of Christmas cards filled with family photos, updates on children and heartfelt holiday wishes. While on the surface, receiving hundreds of Christmas cards containing personal photos and family updates may not seem abnormal; Kunz had never met any of the people from whom he had received these Christmas cards.

[There is] a natural need to honor a favor by returning something of equal value.

Earlier that year, Kunz decided to send out approximately 600 Christmas cards containing a family picture and a handwritten note to people he did not know. Approximately 200 of the recipients who received Christmas cards from Kunz reciprocated by sending Kunz a Christmas card replete with their family photos and handwritten letters providing family updates. Fifteen years later, some of these families continued to reciprocate by annually sending Kunz another Christmas card.[2]

Kunz’ work is evidenced by the unsolicited address labels you receive in the mail from charitable organizations. These organizations understand your psychological need to reciprocate when given a gift and about 35% of you who receive these labels reciprocate by providing a donation to the charity.[3]

Since the need for reciprocation resides in the subconscious parts of your brain, you will not ordinarily challenge your impartiality and objectivity when it comes to your decisions, behaviors and/or actions. Corporations spend almost $2.6 billion dollars per year to lobby members of the United States congress.[4] From 2001 to 2011, over 5,400 congressional staffers left Capitol Hill to become lobbyists. In the same time period, 605 former lobbyists became congressional staffers.[5]

No matter which direction the employees are moving, all of them are likely to have established relationships with each other based, which will lead to small favors. A simple telephone call here or there, a reference letter, and/or doing research on a proposed policy when the politician and/or staffers don’t have the time can lead to the compulsion to reciprocate.

... at any given time, politicians are found to be traveling to exotic locations for seminars and/or working retreats.

The United States congress has taken steps to try and mitigate the rule of reciprocity by banning certain travel and expenses, but there are loopholes, which can be easily exploited. By accepting a free meal or a free trip to speak at a conference, the congressional official is more likely to return the favor. This does not mean, however, that the congressman or congresswoman will automatically engage in a quid pro quo behavior that could be both immoral and illegal. A congressman or congresswoman probably believes himself/herself to be objective when they contemplate legislation but since reciprocation operates in the unconscious areas of the brain, they, as well as you, are unlikely to recognize an issue with their objectivity. The problem lies in your bounded ethicality, which will automatically lead you to believe that there is no conflict of interest when one actually exists.

When Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, it was designed to minimize the influence of lobbyists by disallowing certain forms of travel that could be paid for by lobbyists on Congressional members’ behalf.[6] Yet at any given time, politicians are found to be traveling to exotic locations for seminars and/or working retreats. The invitation only events are organized by other congressional members and the cost is usually a political donation of anywhere between $1,500 and $5,000. [7] While lobbyists are prohibited from paying for these events directly, they are frequently invited by the lawmakers to attend. After being invited, lobbyists typically make a donation to the congressional member’s political action committee (PAC), which is not regulated as strictly as campaign donations. In effect, the lobbyists, through their donations to PACs, are funding these seminars and/or working retreats.[8]

Despite their public statements indicating they can remain impartial and objective, congressional officials are opening themselves up to reciprocation by allowing these events to occur. If you were to contrast the time most of our congressional members meet with lobbyists versus ordinary citizens, where is the rule of reciprocity most likely to be invoked?

Some examples of events where congressional members invited lobbyists to attend included musical concerts by The Who and Bob Seger, a ski trip at the Ritz Carlton in Beaver Creek, Colorado, a wine tasting tour, and a trip to Disney World. Former representative Eric Cantor even invited lobbyists to have coffee with him….as long as they made a $2,500 contribution to his PAC.[9] Could your friends and colleagues afford to sit down with an elected representative at that price? In that manner, the issues represented by lobbyists and those who can afford such costs have a psychological edge in getting their position and/or goals to be adopted without the elected representative consciously realizing it.

The medical profession is also ripe for bounded ethicality because of the rule of reciprocity according to Dr. Cialdini.

“You find doctors more willing to prescribe medication based on what gifts, favors, and tips they have been given by one pharmaceutical company or another."[10]

This assertion was validated through a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Researchers looked at governmental data on pharmaceutical company payments and how they may be correlated with U.S. doctors’ prescriptions choices for heart drugs and an antidepressant. They found that doctors who got even a single meal from a company promoting a certain drug were significantly more likely to prescribe the drug. The more free meals, the more often the drugs were prescribed."[11]

Using 2014 data, ProPublica also did a separate analysis by comparing doctor’s medication choices in the Medicare’s prescription drug program with payments from pharmaceutical and medical device. While the study doesn’t necessarily prove the rule of reciprocity, the findings clearly support the suggestion of its existence.

“Doctors who got money from drug and device makers - even just a meal - prescribed a higher percentage of brand-name drugs overall than doctors who didn’t, our analysis showed. Indeed, doctors who received industry payments were two to three times as likely to prescribe brand-name drugs at exceptionally high rates as others in their specialty."[12]

Gene Carbona was a successful pharmaceutical representative who sold medications to doctors and described himself in this manner. “I was almost a criminal." Carbona counted a Tallahassee clinic among his clients. This particular clinic, which consisted of approximately 50 doctors, was having difficulty making a profit so they asked Carbona for advice on how to run a successful business. Carbona recommended a particular consultant who helped turn the clinic into a profitable business venture.

The medical profession is also ripe for bounded ethicality

During this turnaround, the clinic’s prescription rate for drugs that Carbona represented soared eventually earning Carbona a $140,000 bonus from his company. When asked how he got the doctors to prescribe the drugs he represented, Carbona credited the consultant he had recommended.

“The consultant never pressed the doctors directly. Instead, he talked up Carbona. ‘Gene has put his neck on the line for you guys,’ he would tell them. ‘If this thing doesn’t work, he might get fired."[13]

The consultant instilled the rule of reciprocity in the physicians with those statements. When told that Carbona was risking his job in order for these doctors to get ahead, they likely felt a strong compulsion to return the favor and could do so by prescribing the drugs that Carbona represented even though there were alternative drugs that may have been cheaper and/or more effective.

Accounting is another such profession containing instances where the rule of reciprocity has affected people’s ethics.

“Because of the often subjective nature of accounting and the tight relationships between accounting firms and their clients, even the most honest and meticulous of auditors can unintentionally distort the numbers in ways that mask a company’s true financial status, thereby misleading investors, regulators, and sometimes management."[14]

Companies that are undergoing an audit have certain powers, which reflect the rule of reciprocity.

“Under the current system, auditors are hired and fired by the companies they audit and it is well known that client companies fire accounting firms that deliver unfavorable audits. Even if an accounting firm is large enough to absorb the loss of one client, individual auditors’ jobs and careers may depend on success with individual clients. Moreover, in recent decades, accounting firms have increasingly treated audits as a way to build relationships that allow them to sell their more lucrative consulting services."[15]

The accounting firm Ernst and Young was recently fined $9.3 million for improper relationships between auditors and their clients. In one case, a senior company official was tasked with improving a troubled relationship with a client. The senior company executive was eventually found to have entered into an improper personal relationship with one of the client’s senior executives during his tasking. Over $100,000 in corporate entertainment funds was spent on this client to include costs for travel and sporting events that had no connection to the business of Ernst and Young. In another similar scandal, an auditor for Ernst and Young entered into a romantic relationship with a different client’s senior executive while performing an audit. The supervisor of the auditor found out about this improper relationship but did not adequately report the incident.[16] When you establish relationships with clients, there is a natural flow of wanting to return favors, which can impact the accuracy of any information you provide.

Investigators should determine through interviews, records, or other sources if a person of interest could be the victim of the rule of reciprocity. When speaking with these individuals, the investigator should not be surprised if the person was victimized by bounded ethicality. If so, this person will have justified and/or rationalized their decision or behavior long ago. Utilizing comparisons or methods to change the perspective of the other person could help him/her comprehend the ethical breakdown, but since it is almost an imperative for us to maintain a positive self-image, there will be difficulty in getting the person to accept the contradictory image of what they should have done and what they did.

the rule of reciprocity is ingrained into our minds.

If you are not careful, the rule of reciprocity can also affect you during your investigations. An investigator who accepts even the smallest of favors is setting the stage for unconscious bias to appear. One of the ways to combat the effectiveness of the rule of reciprocity is to not only be aware of its existence but also of its silent effects. Allowing a second investigator to look at your work or allowing them present their theory of the case without you revealing your conclusions first are ways an investigator can maintain independence. Videotaping interviews and studying them closely with another colleague can help you identify areas where the rule was invoked without your conscious recognition. Lastly, if you were to summarize your investigative conclusions and then take the opposite perspective and try to refute them with the evidence obtained, you may be able to gain new insights into your investigation.

As you saw with the Christmas card study, the rule of reciprocity is ingrained into our minds. When someone does you a favor, you will have a natural urge to reciprocate. This compulsion can easily alter the way you perceive the facts as well as the situation at hand. What may seem to be a harmless reciprocation to you could, from a different perspective, be an inadvertent quid pro quo. As an investigator, what steps are you taking to avoid bounded ethicality and maintain your objectivity when someone does you a favor?

[1] Spiegel, A. (2012). Give and Take: How The Rule of Reciprocation Binds Us, NPR, November 26, 2012. Taken from the Internet on May 12, 2017 at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Drutman, L. (2015). How Corporate Lobbyists Conquered American Democracy, The Atlantic, April 20, 2015. Taken from the Internet on May 12, 2017 at

[5] Farnam, T. (2011). Study Shows Revolving Door of Employment Between Congress, Lobbying Firms, The Washington Post, September 13, 2011. Taken from the Internet on May 15, 2017 at

[6] Unknown Author(s). Overview of Travel Rules For Congress, Public Citizen. Taken from the Internet on May 16, 2017 at

[7] Griffin, D. & Fitzpatrick, D. (2014). Politicians Live It Up and Have the Lobbyists Pay, CNN, October 30, 2014. Taken from the Internet on May 16, 2017 at

[8] Kirkpatrick, D. (2007). Congress Finds Way of Avoiding Lobbyist Limits, The New York Times, February 11, 2007. Taken from the Internet on May 17, 2017 at

[9] Ibid.

[10] Spiegel, A. (2012). Give and Take: How The Rule of Reciprocation Binds Us, NPR, November 26, 2012. Taken from the Internet on May 12, 2017 at

[11] Sifferlin, A. (2016). Why Doctors and Drug Companies Shouldn’t Be Friends, Time, June 20, 2016. Taken from the Internet on May 15, 2017 at

[12] Ornstein, S.; Jones, R.; & Tigas, M. (2016). Now There’s Proof; Docs Who Get Company Cash Tend To Prescribe More Brand-Name Meds, NPR, Boston Globe, Tampa Bay Times, March 17, 2016. Taken from the Internet on May 15, 2017 at

[13] Elliott, C. (2006). The Drug Pushers, The Atlantic, April 2006. Taken from the Internet on May 16, 2017 at

[14] Bazerman, M.; Loewenstein, G.; and Moore, D. (2002). Why Good Accountants Do Bad Audits, Harvard Business Review, November 2002. Taken from the Internet on May 16, 2017 at

[15] Ibid.

[16] Agnew, H. (2016). EY Fined $9M For Improper Auditor Relationships, Financial Times, September 19, 2016. Taken from the Internet on May 16, 2017 at

Previous articles in this series:

  1. Why Traditional Ethics And Compliance Training Programs Don't Deter Fraud(23 May 2017)
  2. An Investigator's Guide To Ethics, Part 2: Why Good People Do Bad Things(10 Jun 2017)
  3. The Ethical Dimensions Of Power (06 Jul 2017)
  4. Losing Your Ethical Way Through Competition And Rivalry (23 Jul 2017)

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