Problem summary

We feel obliged to give when we receive


Right after downloading a document from scribed you are asked to share a document of your own. One favor in return for another?


  • Utilize the power of reciprocation by provoking or retaliating users to returning a favor or value provided for free.

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Make users feel they have been done a favor by the system or other users in order to make them feel obliged to return it. The favor can be annything from receiving a physical gift to a hug – or even a “like” on facebook. The receiver of the gesture or favor then has the social obligation to respond, following the norm of reciprocity.

Reciprocity can also play out in a negative way: revenge. Even though revenge is a negative behavior, it has been utilized in a number of online games, where you try to “get each other”. On Foursquare, you can take over the mayorships of other people, which in turn feel obliqued to return the negative favor.

Provoke users to retaliate based on their social obligation to respond.


If we feel we have been done a favor, we will want to return it. When we receive a gift, we are more likely to comply with the demand that follows: we say yes to those we owe.

Reciprocation is part of the norms that form our social behavior. We are raised that returning a favor is the right thing to do and that we should feel bad if we do not return a favor. Our bad conscience will at some point gather up unreturned favors into some sort or action from users.


Reciprocity Decay

Our desire to give back wanes rapidly with time.

You would believe that our desire to give back favors doesn’t fade over time.

However, a study2 suggests the opposite, that our urge to reciprocate has a narrow window that it fades and disappears quickly. In the study, donation rates reduced from 1.5% down to 0.4% over a period of 4 months. A delay of 30 days led to a significant 36% drop in donations.

To harvest the biggest gains of reciprocity, you should aim for a “Goldilocks” window: not as soon as to create discomfort and a transactional relationship, but not so long that people forget about you.


1 Six Patterns for Persuasion in Online Social Networks

2 Field study of charitable giving reveals that reciprocity decays over time, Chuan, A., Kessler, J. B., & Milkman, K. L. (2018). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201708293.

3 Reciprocity Decay at

More examples of the Reciprocation pattern See all 3 example screenshots

User Interface Design Patterns