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Reciprocation Bias and Hanlon's Razor

01 November 2019 - By Paul Sills

Reciprocation bias and Hanlon’s razor are the final two psychological strategies that play a substantial role in our cognitive processes in mediation, as we have explored in this series of articles.

"There are slavish souls who carry their appreciation for favours done them so far that they strangle themselves with the rope of gratitude." — Friedrich Nietzsche.

Reciprocation bias

Reciprocation bias is a complex sociological concept that relates to the social rule of paying someone back. If someone helps us, or gives us something, reciprocation bias means that we feel compelled to return the favour.

The work of psychologist Robert Cialdini has been pivotal in establishing the links between reciprocity and our social relationships. Dr Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, offers insight into why people tend to say ‘yes’ more often than not in socio-economic settings. Reciprocation bias is one of six principles of influence identified by Dr Cialdini (which will be discussed in my next article regarding the science of influence).

The need for reciprocation is a self-imposed obligation that we place on ourselves. While this encourages generosity and a mutual respect between people, reciprocation can also result in unfair exchanges. Dr Cialdini posits an example of a woman whose car will not start. A man comes to her rescue and then one month later asks to borrow the car. The woman hesitates but remembers the man’s act of restarting her car so agrees to lend it to him. Predictably, the man crashes the car. This example demonstrates the idea that reciprocity is an “itch we need to scratch”. Specifically, we feel internal discomfort and fear of being labelled “ungrateful” by society if we do not reciprocate, which leads to the bias. We will usually reciprocate because we believe it is the “right thing to do”.

Two people shaking hands

An interesting experiment was conducted by Dr Cialdini in the 1960s, when religion in the United States was struggling financially and raising money was an issue. Dr Cialdini observed that Hare Krishnas would spend time in public places (airports, parks, etc) and hand out gifts to passers-by, such as flowers, magazines or books. Once the gift was in the person’s hand, the Hare Krishna would ask for a donation. Reluctantly, people would offer a few coins and walk away disgruntled. Dr Cialdini believes that this was the rule of reciprocation in action and asserts that the Hare Krishnas made millions of dollars using this strategy.

Mediators can make use of the reciprocation bias in two strategic ways. First, they can encourage both sides to exchange offers in the negotiation process. After one side makes an offer, reciprocation bias will result in the other side feeling obliged to participate in the discussion. Compromise and successful negotiations are encouraged by reciprocation bias because the parties will feel it is necessary to respond to the other side’s suggestions and offers.

Secondly, reciprocation bias through body language can foster a positive and calm environment – smiles are contagious, as the saying goes. As it is the mediator who ultimately drives the process, he or she must set the tone. The mediator must therefore speak and carry out the mediation in a way that makes the parties feel comfortable and open to the process. If the mediator demonstrates positive and optimistic energy then the participants will reciprocate, ideally resulting in a successful outcome. It is also important that the mediator applaud even small steps forward to keep the parties motivated and on track to developing mutually beneficial resolutions.

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe." — Albert Einstein.

Hanlon’s razor

The phrase ‘Hanlon’s razor’ was coined by Robert J Hanlon and has been used by many prominent individuals throughout history. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, famously asserted: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence”.

We assume that we play prominent roles in the lives of those around us – when someone is rude, it is because they are annoyed at us, and when they are upset, it is due to something we have done. We disregard all other possible explanations to explain someone’s behaviour and immediately attribute it to our own actions. This means that we are constantly linking ourselves to the behaviour of others when it is often totally unrelated. This occurs because a lot of human communication is non-verbal (facial expressions and body language), and can easily be interpreted incorrectly and therefore result in erroneous conclusions about how others perceive us. This is a very human, but potentially dangerous, psychological process operating within relationships.

Hanlon’s razor is used to encourage us to take a step back and factor in other reasons as to why a person may act in a certain way toward us. It is most commonly expressed as “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. If we replace stupidity with tiredness, hunger, stress, misunderstanding or shyness we are able to more realistically explain a person’s actions. This allows us to see others as complex individual beings with their own lives and issues rather than just characters in our own stories.

More often than not, another person’s behaviour has little to do with us. Hanlon’s razor challenges us to reinterpret others’ behaviours in order to become more rational thinkers, have healthier relationships and be more confident within ourselves.

Hanlon’s razor is particularly relevant in negotiations because participants often perceive the other party as “out to get them”. It is therefore especially important to be mindful that parties in mediation will assign malicious motives to the other parties.

It is vital that mediators take the time to allow each side to speak and ensure that the participants are educated on the reasoning behind the other’s actions. It is particularly important that mediators encourage parties to see the issues from the other side’s perspective, perhaps suggesting alternative narratives to explain why the conflict has arisen. This challenges parties to be less judgemental and removes malice as the only explanation for the other’s actions. If Hanlon’s razor is used successfully, negotiations will be more straightforward as people are given the benefit of the doubt and parties can focus on the facts at hand without being as emotionally charged.


Paul Sills paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz is an Auckland barrister and mediator, specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is an AMINZ Mediation Panel member.

Last updated on the 1st November 2019