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Blog: Event marketing

You scratch my back …
Why event managers need to know about Reciprocity Decay and how to get around it

2 March 2022 minute read

Ian Dickie
Managing Director

Event managers live or die by reciprocity. It’s the oil that lubricates everything we do. A speaker asks you for an introduction to someone in another company you work with. Later on, you might ask that same speaker to return the favour by suggesting someone they know to chair a panel discussion. Or connect you with someone in marketing to discuss sponsorship. And so on.

This uniquely human IOU system unlocks a whole manner of transactions that allow us to be efficient and successful in our jobs and our lives.

Digging a little deeper into reciprocity psychology, we’re hard-wired to both give and give back, but we’re also crucially obliged to accept. In accepting a gift, whether we wanted it or not, we’re then motivated to remove the uncomfortable feeling of indebtedness that comes with it.

To misquote Mufasa in The Lion King, ‘it’s the circle of life, and it moves us all’. This web of indebtedness is crucial to the functioning of modern society and to getting stuff done.

But here’s the thing. Reciprocity wanes.

We give, at least in part, in the hope of receiving something in return that we might need, perhaps at a later date. But what if that time doesn’t come? Conventional wisdom suggests that we will eventually get back what we put in, right?


Recent research from the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates, through a large field study, that if we don’t trigger reciprocity within a given timeframe, the sense of obligation may be lost.

We may end up getting nothing at all.

To measure this, the researchers decided to look at how patients’ desire to return a hospital’s kindness with a charitable donation does indeed wane, and rapidly too. They studied eight university hospitals, taking data from 82,231 outpatient visits spread over a couple of years. Since the hospital system is funded in part by donations, 18,515 patients were sent a subsequent request for a financial contribution.

Based on the date of their first visit, patients were grouped into two month ranges and then individually mailed a request at a pre-defined point, regardless of their personal visit date.

What the researchers found from looking at the donation requests was that patients’ likelihood to donate significantly reduced as the time between their first visit and point of being asked for money increased. Specifically, donation rates reduced from 1.5% down to 0.4%. Going further, delaying a request for donations by an additional 30 days reduced donations by a whopping 36%. And waiting until 30 days after a patient’s last visit reduced donations by about 50% Ouch!

Why does our capacity to give back to others diminish over time? Well, the researchers think it has a lot to do with memory. Things that seem significant right now simply don’t mean as much to us a year, a few months, or even a week from now. Life’s Present Bias simply gets in the way. Taking the hospital example above, the discomforting threat to the patients’ mortality has since waned. Their medical setback now overcome, new challenges – paying the bills, a new baby, moving house – take their place.

Put simply, we forget.

While the study above looked at charitable giving, reciprocity is critical in all areas of human interaction; from customer loyalty to workplace collaboration. And now we know that our ability to return kindness diminishes rapidly.

We need to act quickly in order to benefit from reciprocity. So here are some handy tips to help make sure you get what you give:

Don’t wait too long to make your request. If you want people to respond to your requests, know that the clock is ticking. Certainly, don't do what the hospital did and pre-define request dates. They lost a lot of potential income by doing that. At the very least, send requests out more frequently. Better still, make the timing of reciprocal requests personal.

Don't be immediate, either! For example, if you’re going to ask an attendee for a review to use on your marketing material, asking right away at the close of the event might not be the best time. You have the attendee’s email, so send them a request the following day, framed as a warm reminder of their experience. Chances are they will do it right away, rather than meaning to, and not getting around to it.

Trigger recall. If indeed you’ve waited too long to make your request, sending an initial email to help remind the recipient of the past act of kindness may be better.

Accommodate decay. This could be followed up shortly after by a request either framed in a more subtle fashion, or one that accommodates this decay and asks less of the recipient. For instance, a request to share a video about last year’s event instead of a request for money.

Draw a line. Strategically, if enough time has passed, assume that the likelihood of response – whether to an email you’d sent, your offer of collaboration or an invite to an event you were hosting – will be near zero. A fresh approach that entirely sidesteps any awkwardness of the delay may be your best bet. A smaller commitment request in an unrelated context will help reduce any discomfort on their part.

Maybe this all sounds a bit cynical, but it shouldn’t. People we give support to want to support us in return. It’s just that we all have a hundred things on our minds and we forget. Recognising this fact – and being a bit more strategic about when (and how) we reach out to people – is one of the keys to forging long-lasting, reciprocal relationships with fellow professionals.

And try running successful events without those.

Hakuna Matata!