The Social Psychology of Veganism – Reciprocity Norm

The reciprocity norm suggests that people are likely to help those who have helped them in the past.  The feeling of reciprocity can be increased if the relationship is a sustained one, and, it can still occur even when the help is given anonymously.

The vegan activist special offering cupcakes for conversations is an excellent example of how to engage the reciprocity norm. If someone is given a cupcake, they will feel obligated to return the favor by lending an ear. Nonprofits that send out stationary or calendars in hopes of soliciting donations in return also improve the help they receive by offering these freebies first.

Reciprocity has its limits. Not everyone has the ability to reciprocate adequately or at all. Activists should be careful to utilize this technique only in ways that will not threaten the self-esteem of the recipients. Research finds that older persons can become resentful if they believe they are being patronized, for instance. Offers and subsequent expectations should be relatively modest.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Give a little, get a little
  • Don’t apply this norm to those who can’t reciprocate, it may backfire


Burger, J., J. Sanchez, J. Imberi, and L. Grande. 2009.  “The Norm of Reciprocity as an Internalized Social Norm:  Returning Favors Even When No One Finds Out.”  Social Influence 4:  11-17.

Gouldner, A.  1960.  “The Norm of Reciprocity:  A Preliminary Statement.”  American Sociological Review 25:  161-178.

Myers, D. 2013. Social Psychology, 11th ed. McGraw Hill.

Nadler, A. and J. Fisher. 1986.  “The Role of Threat to Self-Esteem and Perceived Control in Recipient Reaction to Help:  Theory Development and Empirical Validation.”  In I. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 19).  Orlando, FL:  Academic Press.

Newsom, J.  1999.  “Another Side to Caregiving:  Negative Reactions to Being Helped.”  Institute on Aging.  Portland State University.


This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.

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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.