The Why #43: Why do people pay buskers when they could watch for free?
By Dan Monheit, 03.06.22
Question submitted by Will from Northcote
I hear you Willy, and can see it now.
It’s 8am on Friday morning, and with coffee in hand you’re en route to work through the bustling streets of the CBD. There’s a small crowd gathered up ahead. You take out one Airpod and are met by the undeniable cacophony of a busker strumming, tapping and smacking their worn guitar while belting sorrows deep from the heart. What a sight.
You think to yourself ‘Hey, it’s Friday, I’ve got a few minutes to kill’. You watch on as they switch gears, transitioning effortlessly to a slow rendition of Lizzo’s ‘About Damn Time’ (who knew?). One by one, people step forward and throw loose change (and the occasional fiver) into the open guitar case. Strangely, you feel compelled to do the same, knowing full well that the logical, rational, economically responsible thing to do is just walk away. After all, he can’t take his music back now that you’ve listened to it.
So why are you walking forward, Will? Why is your arm outstretched, hand at the ready with the exact same $4.80 in coins you’ll need for that second oat milk latte in an hour’s time?
Maybe the coins are weighing you down. Maybe you feel more generous on a Friday. Or maybe, just maybe (ok probably), it’s something deeper, something cognitive, something … behavioural.
Cue the music!
Refers to our tendency to reciprocate the acts of good faith others have shown to us. We have an innate desire to return favours, pay back debts and treat others well who have done the same to us. Failing to do so leaves us feeling indebted, which comes with a strangely uncomfortable sensation we all want to alleviate.
Dennis Regan’s 1997 ‘Coca-Cola’ experiment is probably the most well known study on the Reciprocity Bias. In the study, participants were paired up and sent to an art gallery, believing their task was to evaluate paintings. Oh, how naive they were. What they weren’t told was that their partner — Joe — was secretly Regan’s assistant and running the real experiment. For some participants, Joe would leave for a few minutes and then return as normal. For others, Joe would play Mr Nice Guy and return with two cans of Coke, one for himself and one as a gift for our subject. In both cases, later in the day John would ask the participants if they would buy a raffle ticket from him.
On average, participants who received the gifts from Joe were twice as likely to buy tickets as those who did not. Why? The simple act of feeling required to return a favour… even if they didn’t ask for it.
Whether it’s arguing over who gets to pay for the morning coffee, shouting the first round of after work drinks, or gifting all your coins to the guy on the street corner flailing his limbs in orchestral brilliance, we see reciprocity played out every day.
For brands, reciprocity isn’t just about being ‘nice’ and doing favours for your customers. It’s about going first, making it unexpected, and being clear that you (seemingly) want nothing in return. Think free samples for food services, complimentary extras for retail and hospitality, or free trials (and trial extensions) for subscription services. Done right, customers will feel treated, indebted, and inclined to return the favour. Raffle ticket, anyone?
PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check why all vegan food feels healthy here.
Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about Reciprocity Bias on episode 29 of the Bad Decisions podcast.
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