The Law Of Reciprocity

Part 1: The Influence Literature Series

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” said George Bernard Shaw. He wasn’t wrong either. The art of effective communication is something that takes time, practice and research. For the chiropractic profession, it’s a pursuit that seems to be becoming increasingly important in the information age.  

Chiropractor Martin Harvey has spent a lot of time looking into the art of influence, and believes much wisdom can be gleaned from what he calls the influence literature: the combined wisdom of behavioral economists, psychologists, and marketing specialists applied to the human experience. Within the influence literature lays many a precious gem – gems which the chiropractic profession can put to good use as we break down barriers between us and the people who can benefit from what we have to offer. 

Communicating the value, effectiveness and philosophy of chiropractic has been, in equal parts, our joy and our challenge, ever since DD Palmer delivered the first adjustment. Communicating our value has always mattered greatly.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. It can be difficult to cut through the noise created by the onslaught of marketing messages people encounter every day, and to make a lasting mark. Sometimes, our passion for chiropractic can marry with the short appointment time and result in an information overload that doesn’t necessarily connect with the patient.

Dr Martin Harvey became interested in the art of influence because of a simple thought: “There must be people out there who are trying to influence other peoples behavior and having more of an effect than we are.” His search for answers brought together work from the movers and shakers within psychology, economics, behavioral sciences and marketing, providing him with a wealth of information that he believes chiropractors can greatly benefit from.

Harvey argues that taking time to build your credibility as a messenger can be the difference between having your message hit the spot or not. This credibility is built into everything from the way we book appointments, to the way our clinics look, and the way we engage verbal communication skills to create connection.

Powerful concepts lie within the influence literature: from learning the art of the authoritative understatement, to the principal of candor, which lends more credibility to our claims as we first acknowledge our weaknesses. Over the course of this blog we will be looking at some of the concepts nestled within the influence literature in the hopes that it will empower chiropractors, CA’s and those within our practices to better communicate the power of what we love so much.  


First up, we visit the father of influence: Robert Cialdini, PhD, and talk about the role reciprocity in moving from communication to influence. 

Yes, his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” is old. There’s that admission out of the way. Still, the ideas in this book have influenced countless other authors and psychologists, causing it to become a work that has stood the test of time. It was a groundbreaker that’s become a classic on the topic of persuasion, and it was based on years of rigorous research. In fact, it was one of the first books to look into why we do what we do, and how we can influence others.

There are six main concepts nestled in the book, all contributing to a growing understanding around how we influence people.

The goal of chiropractors might be to assist those in their practice to achieve and express a higher level of health. But before we get to that point, we have to create the meaningful connections that sustain that relationship and move us towards our goal. This is where Cialdini comes in. He introduces 6 simple concepts that have made their way into popular wisdom around communication and influence. One of these doesn’t get talked about all that often in this sphere of study, and yet perhaps it should. He calls it the rule of reciprocity.

What does it mean?

“The rule says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. If a woman does us a favor, we should do her one in return; if a man sends us a birthday present, we should remember his birthday with a gift of our own; if a couple invites us to a party, we should be sure to invite them to one or ours. By virtue of the reciprocity rule, then we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations and the like [1].”

According to Cialdini, the world is made up of networks of reciprocity. We take, and then we are obliged to give. So this begs the question of us: what are we giving to those in our practice? Cialdini argues that reciprocity has power. We see it in fundraising, when we are promised some form of service or reputational bump in return for our donation. We see it in politics when a favor earns us a sympathetic ear. We see it in merchandising, where we take a free sample and this leaves us with a mental hook that says “I must buy that product sometime soon.”

“In true Jujitsu fashion, the promoter who gives free samples can release the natural indebting force inherent in a gift while innocently appearing to have only the intention to inform,” says Cialdini, before going on to explain that gifts or favors, whether invited or not, have the effect of enforcing the reciprocity rule.

As innocuous as this rule may seem, it gets results:

“The Disabled American Veterans organisation reports that its simple mail appeal for donations produces a response rate of about 18 percent. But when the mailing also includes an unsolicited gift (gummed, individualized address labels), the success rate nearly doubles to 35 percent. This is not to say that we might not feel a stronger sense of obligation to return a favor we have requested, only that such a request is not necessary to produce our indebtedness [1].”


So what does all this mean for chiropractors? Do we then need to plonk ourselves into a marketing space where we force free pens and fridge-magnet notepads into the hands of every new person? 

To Martin Harvey, the answer to this is a resounding ‘No.’ Our greatest gift is our adjustment. Invoking the rule of reciprocity is not about duping people into receiving a chiropractic adjustment. It’s about breaking down barriers that stop them from engaging with us at all.

How do you do that on a practical level? Here are some things other chiropractors have found to be effective:

  • Free spinal screenings: These come with no obligation to sign up for a first visit. It’s simply about having a spinal screening or a postural analysis. Often, this can be facilitated by a booth at a special event or fair. It facilitates a conversation between chiropractor and potential client, whereby we use the ‘free gift’ as an opportunity to chat. Best-case scenario, we are able to connect some of the dots health wise, and present the concept that health is to be nurtured and not just repaired. Worst-case scenario, we spent ten minutes and left an impression that may take time to germinate.
  • Offer access to resources: This could come in the form of new patient packs with information and products, or it could come in the form of blog articles that answer questions you’ve gotten in practice. Anything that says, “I’m listening. I’m hearing what you want to understand and I’m doing the hard yards getting that information to you” can invoke positive reciprocity. Even having a simple practice library containing books that you’ve found interesting can be a way of creating connection with those in your practice.  
  • Utilise the health talk as a way of giving to the wider community: Our patients already look to us as champions of health. Opening up the practice after hours to give a health talk to patients and their friends can be a great way of hitting hot topics and breaking down barriers. It’s not about charging for every head that comes through the door. It’s about giving empowering information.

The law of reciprocity, in its simplest form is this: one good deed deserves another. Our greatest gift is the adjustment, but long before that is a possibility for a new patient, a big question has to be answered – Is this person credible? Do they know what they are doing? Are they just after my money or do they truly want to help me?

By first giving, we can then open the door to a greater dialogue and a partnership that is leading people towards better health.



[1] Cialdini, R (1984), “Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion,” Harper Collins

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