Does receiving favours and freebies make you uncomfortable? Maybe you have “reciprocity anxiety”


By Christian Jarrett

Years ago, my wife and I were window shopping in the Brighton lanes when we decided to enter a posh perfume store to take a closer sniff. A smiling sales woman approached and, to our delight, offered us each a complimentary glass of sparking wine and some nibbles. Soon though, our glee turned to discomfort: could we really just walk out having enjoyed the freebies? Conspiring like thieves, we decided that although we wouldn’t buy anything (not that we could have afforded to), we had better stay and look interested a while longer; we even dropped a false hint to the woman at our likely return.

According to a team of researchers led by Xiling Xiong at Zhejiang University in China, my wife and I were suffering from an acute bout of reciprocation anxiety. In their new paper in the Journal of Economic PsychologyXiong and his colleagues propose that this is not just a state, but a trait – a specific kind of social anxiety – that some of us are more prone to than others, and what’s more, they’ve created a new questionnaire to measure it.

The new Reciprocity Anxiety Scale comprises eleven items that respondents must rate their (dis)agreement with on a five-point scale:

Screenshot 2018-07-24 16.33.48.png
From Xiong et al 2018

The scale taps two related components of reciprocity anxiety: avoidance, both of receiving favours/help/compliments and of feeling the need to reciprocate these things (factor 1) and distress, not only about not being able to reciprocate, but also at what others will think if you don’t (factor 2).

The researchers believe reciprocity anxiety is likely to be greater the bigger a favour and the more public its receipt. They think it’s a trait that companies should take an interest in – while loyalty schemes, vouchers and other freebies have obvious appeal to many customers, results from two initial studies suggested that these marketing strategies are actually likely to deter others. 

Xiong and his team first asked hundreds of volunteers to complete the new scale and then to imagine a scenario in which a shop cashier offered a 20 per cent discount voucher off the whole purchase and any further purchases (and that she wants you to use it), and another in which a waiter as a favour gave a free money-off coupon before recommending a pricey desert. Higher scorers in reciprocity anxiety were more likely to say they would refuse the discount voucher in the shop, and that they would feel obliged to order the expensive pudding at the restaurant. 

In a follow-up study, volunteers imagined a shop attendant offering them a free drink and plate full of snacks. Afterwards, high scorers in reciprocity anxiety scored lower for customer satisfaction and they said they would be less willing to visit the store again and less willing to spread a good word about the shop.

“Reciprocity works to establish a psychological bond” between customer and firm, the researchers said, but the discomfort it causes can backfire among those high in reciprocity anxiety, especially if they feel the benefits reflect badly on them or that they will struggle to reciprocate (around 18 per cent of people tested in these new studies scored highly in the trait; age and gender were unrelated).

Xiong’s team suggest that it may in future be possible to detect customers’ levels of reciprocity anxiety through their “behavioural residue” (such as through their choice of language and social media habits) and then firms could target marketing strategies appropriately.

The new scale needs more testing, including looking at whether it can predict actual behaviour, not just people’s responses to hypotheticals.

It’s easy to be sceptical when psychologists propose another new trait (many will feel this is just a manifestation of social anxiety), but it strikes me as an interesting concept to explore further, including in non-commercial contexts. For example, I wonder how it might impact the ways that people manage their friendships and other relationships – perhaps high scorers in reciprocity anxiety are inclined to turn down invitations, seek help or receive other friendly favours, putting them at risk of loneliness and isolation. 

Reciprocity anxiety: Individual differences in feeling discomfort in reciprocity situations

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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