Can reciprocation be influenced?

Much research has evidenced the law of reciprocation (if I do something for you, you’re more likely to do something for me in return) but how much can reciprocation be influenced? And does the amount of effort that is put into the initial activity have a subsequent effect on the likelihood and the amount of reciprocity that is given in return?

Experiment setup

An experimenter held a door open for a participant in either a low-effort or high-effort condition. Total participants 194.

  • Low effort condition: The experimenter walked in front of the participant and propped the door open with his shoulder, while looking down at his mobile phone.
  • High-effort condition: The experimenter held the door open with his free hand while the participant exited the building before them. They also looked and smiled at the participant whilst doing so.

The results

  • People were more likely to thank the experimenter in the high-effort condition. In the low-effort condition, 50% of participants thanked the experimenter versus 84.9% in the high-effort condition. 
  • Verbal thanks was not a predictor of subsequent helping behaviour.
  • The experimenter dropped pens onto the floor after holding open the door for the person. In total, 27% of participants helped the experimenter to pick up the pens. Of these, most (64%) had took part in the high-effort condition, with 19% being in the low-effort condition.
  • The likelihood of participants’ helping to pick up the pens varied with physical distance. The experimenter waited for the participant to walk a specific number of steps out of the building before dropping the pens. Participants were more likely to help, the less steps they had taken. Participants in the high-effort condition helped in greater proportion at all distances when compared to the low-effort condition.

In Summary

Participants verbally thanked and reciprocated more frequently in the high-effort condition.

How to use this

Rather than simply offering your customers a discount or freebie, think of what you could offer that would be perceived by them as having taken greater effort. 

Read more

Fox GR, Araujo HF, Metke MJ, Shafer C and Damasio A (2015) How Does the Effort Spent to Hold a Door Affect Verbal Thanks and Reciprocal Help?

Psychology of panic buying loo roll

Panic buying is what people naturally do when faced with an imminent disaster, like the spread of the coronavirus. Whilst it may seem irrational, it actually has a psychologically rational basis. 

Panic buying toilet paper has become a major focus in the media and supermarket shelves have been stripped bare. There have been fights in stores over toilet roll and I saw one guy running down the aisle to grab a packet. It’s pretty crazy! Why is everyone so panicked about loo roll? Let’s have a look at the psychology to find out.

The role of the media

The media have played a major role in creating anxiety in people with regards to running out of essential items and food. All we see in the news every day, is coverage of shops running out of items and reports of panic buying. There were even some reports of people fighting over toilet roll.

They had experts debating whether shops would be able to keep up with demand and would we run out of food? These reports went on not just for days, but weeks, and if they didn’t have an effect on you at first, the cumulative daily reporting becomes an internal ear worm. And, if you weren’t worried about how many toilet rolls were in your home, you soon had that nagging voice in your head about whether you should be going out and buying more, you know just in case… 

It’s become a self fulfilling prophecy

When the media continuously show us images of empty toilet roll shelves, it enhances our belief that this problem might exist in our own local supermarkets. We begin to worry that when we next go shopping we might see empty shelves too. The more people who see these images and news reports, the more likely they’ll be to pick up extra toilet roll on their next shop and soon enough it becomes a real problem and there are empty shelves in your local supermarket. Your belief of what would happen, became your behaviour – you made it a reality.

Toilet paper is a cleanliness product

The main messages we’re being given about Covid19 are all about hygiene and cleanliness. We’re being told to wash our hands, not touch our face, not to get too close to other people… Toilet paper is a cleanliness product and therefore, buying it adds to that sense of feeling more clean and this makes us feel more secure, as we feel like we’re following the advice. 

Social proof 

We’re a social species that imitates what others are doing. So when we see that a large amount of people are acting in a certain way, we have a very natural instinct to copy this behaviour. When you see images of empty shelves and hear that your friends are all stockpiling toilet rolls, you think to yourself, “Well, maybe I should be doing this too.”

When other people hoard and they share images of empty shelves all over social media, it sets an example for others to imitate.

If everyone else on the Titanic is running for the lifeboats, you’re going to run too, regardless if the ship’s sinking or not – Steven Taylor


Seeing reports of empty shelves on the news and then, seeing them for yourself in real life  validates any concerns you may have had and can trigger that urge to grab whatever is left. You may feel a sense of panic triggered by seeing it for yourself. When things are scarce they also hold more value to us. So when it’s difficult to find toilet roll, suddenly your perceived value of toilet roll increases, making the urge to buy it more intense. Hoarding is a natural human response to perceived scarcity. But this irrational panic buying can also lead to price gouging, and we’ve already seen this with prices on eBay for things like toilet roll and hand sanitiser going through the roof! These price increases add to it being seen as a scarce product. What started as perceived scarcity becomes actual scarcity.

Fear of loss and loss aversion

If we later realise that we need toilet paper and we didn’t buy it when we had the chance, we will feel bad. A study by Kahneman and Tversky showed that losing $100 feels twice as strong as winning $100. This is why we have such an aversion to loss – it physically hurts us more.

Can you see how the red loss line is steeper than the blue gain line in the below diagram? This means that $100 loss is 2x more painful than a $100 gain. 

Hoarding is a natural response to stress

Now is a time of uncertainty and social isolation. These factors can psychologically motivate people to buy things they don’t need, especially people who struggle to tolerate uncertainty. One of the strongest predictors of hoarding behaviour is a person’s perceived inability to tolerate distress. If it’s in a person’s general nature to avoid distress, they are more likely to buy more products than they need. This type of person will find it more difficult to believe the government when they announce supermarkets will not close or that the supply chain is strong. Or, if they do believe them, they may decide it’s best to be prepared, just in case things change. In the post-brexit era, trust in the government for many people is low, and when public trust in the government to handle a crisis is low, panic buying is more likely to occur.

People want to feel more in control and less anxious

This whole situation is changing rapidly. Every day there is a new announcement from the government and the speed at which our lives are changing is a shock to the system. People are feeling out of control. Panic buying is fuelled by anxiety, and a willingness to go to lengths to alleviate those fears: like queueing for hours or and buying way more toilet rolls than you need!

People react to extreme situations with extreme behaviour

Compared to past pandemics, the global response to the coronavirus has been one of widespread panic. Steven Taylor is a clinical psychologist and author of The Psychology of Pandemics, he says “On the one hand, [the response is] understandable, but on the other hand it’s excessive. The coronavirus scares people because it’s new, and there’s a lot about it that’s still unknown. When people hear conflicting messages about the risk it poses and how seriously they should prepare for it, they tend to resort to the extreme. When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat. Special danger needs special precautions.”

Zero risk bias

Research on decision-making has documented a zero risk bias. People like the idea of eliminating one category of risk entirely, even if it is something as seemingly silly as running out of toilet paper. People can get complete control over that one little thing in their lives and feel like they are doing something. 

People are motivated largely by self-interest and to avoid suffering (whether physical or emotional, real or perceived). We spend time evaluating possible risks and reducing them, because it means we get to live a longer life. And while it may not make much rational sense to hoard packs of loo roll, it makes us feel like we’re taking some precautions to minimise risk. And remember, different people have different risk tolerances. So whilst you might feel perfectly fine about not overbuying loo roll, another person may need to.

Understanding the psychology behind our shopping behaviour can help us to make more rational purchases during this time. If you’re feeling compelled to panic buy, it might be worth asking what it is you’re really afraid of.


Hi everyone! How are you doing?

This is just a quick post to tell you about the launch of our new site

As I’m sure you already know, I run three UX businesses:

Keep It Usable: Human-driven research and design. Award-winning user experiences, service design and innovation based on Psychology, Science and Behavioural insights. You’ll often see us speaking at events and educating about how Psychology can be used to change behaviour in digital experiences and persuade people to buy online!

Our work has been showcased at 10 Downing Street, won awards and featured on BBC’s Horizon. We’ve also appeared on BBC Breakfast, radio and at events, sharing our expertise.

Home UX Lab: Pioneering homely style research lab, combining the benefits (validity) of ethnographic research with the rigour of a lab. Home lab has been the inspiration for multiple home style labs since we invented it.

I Need Users: The only participant recruitment agency run by UX experts. Shorter lead times, last minute recruitment options, extra screening processes, better quality users and less dropouts. Worldwide user recruitment.

They’re all based at Media City here in the UK, although we work worldwide for global clients. So, we created for you to easily find UX services when you need them. Whether that’s a full design project or research piece by Keep It Usable, needing to rent a lab in the UK (Manchester) or needing participants for your own research.

Bookmark it.

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Featured in the papers: Our award-winning health app

If you were reading the MEN newspaper on Saturday, you’ll have spotted me in an article about the mobile health app, Clintouch. The app was designed by Keep It Usable, and recently won an innovation award as well as being the subject of a meeting hosted by David Cameron’s senior health policy advisor at 10 Downing Street, to consider the impact that digital technology could have in improving the nation’s health.

Clintouch is one of the first apps being prescribed by doctors to patients to aid early intervention. Currently prescribed to patients with psychosis, the app could ultimately save the NHS millions by enabling earlier treatment before a patient becomes seriously ill.

The app asks mental health patients to record their mood using a simple, easy-to-use daily diary on their mobile. Patients can then see how their moods change and gives them the ability to be more in control of their illness. Also, if the app records a pattern or consistent low mood, their doctor is automatically alerted.


To increase engagement and continued longer term use, the app was designed to be very easy to use. This is really important for anyone with mental health issues – the last thing they need is a frustrating to use or confusing app! Emotional engagement was also deemed important to aid longer term use, so we added personalisation features, such as the ability to choose a background photo or upload one of your own – something that will motivate the user. The app also contains motivational quotes and messages.

Cintouch is the creation of Manchester University and was thoroughly tested with psychosis patients. It is now being trialled in several NHS trusts with great success.


There is a great deal of scope for health and wellbeing apps to improve our lives, cut NHS costs and improve the relationships we have with our doctors. However, it is crucial that these apps are designed by professionals in collaboration with health experts so they actually work and have a high level of efficacy, otherwise they just join the thousands of health apps already in the app store that are downloaded and never used.

Independent research that we conducted with users of health and wellbeing apps showed that there is a great deal of distrust and disengagement with health apps (caused by the quality of apps in the marketplace at the moment). Users want trustworthy apps that are easy to use and will do what they claim to do. Clintouch is hopefully the first of many apps that bridge the gap between patient and doctor and make a real difference to both the NHS and people’s lives.

Read the newspaper article

How to make dogs drive cars and users click buttons

My latest post on Keepitusable about behaviour is now live and it’s a good one!

I explain the importance of understanding, researching, analysing and changing behaviour. Using BJ Fogg’s behaviour model I look at what contributes to a desired behaviour occurring or failing and how we can turn a user into a buyer through analysing the psychological buying process pyramid.

Here’s an extract from the article:

“Who would have thought that dogs could be taught to drive cars or that double the amount of users would click a button just through a simple design tweak.

Behaviour is fascinating. Not only can we research, analyse and understand behaviour, it is possible to then actively and deliberately change it. It isn’t easy or quick but if you get it right the results can be incredible. But human behaviour has deep, complex motivations and meanings which is why it’s vitally important to have at least one person involved in your project who has a solid background in psychology.

A good starting point for understanding behaviour is the work of BJ Fogg. His behaviour model states that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: MotivationAbility, and Trigger. When a behaviour does not occur, it means that at least one of these key elements is missing….”


Read the full article >>>

Using kittens to explain the power of Scarcity

(True story)

There are 4 kittens in a pet shop…

3 tabby kittens

and 1 black and white kitten

black and white kitten

Fact: Tabby kittens are adopted much more quickly than black and white kittens.

So, which kitten do you think will sell first?

Answer: The black and white one


The principle of Scarcity

What is the principle of Scarcity?

When something is scarce or rare, people see it as more highly valued and more desirable. This is why shops often have sales and why antiques have such a high value. Scarcity is closely related to the fear of loss – people fear losing what they have and also what they don’t yet have. They will act in sometimes non-sensical ways to avoid this loss (shopaholics and hoarders are good examples).

How do I know the black and white kitten really will be sold first?

Because these kittens have been advertised on the residents board where I live and everyone wants the black and white one.

How to sell more by using scarcity in your website design

  • Limited numbers of a product left? Make this information clear in the interface.
  • Show an end date or time for an offer.
  • Offer something free with the product but limit it’s availability.
Scarcity is a very well know persuader and influencer of behaviour. Once you’re aware of it, you’ll start to see how it is used everywhere so it’s well worth thinking of how you can utilise its power in your designs. 

Amazon use 2 scarcity elements on their product page
amazon scarcity example

Asos use ‘fear of loss’ to persuade within their basket page

The paradox of choice

The video below is of Barry Schwartz talking about the paradox of choice. It’s something that faces us all everyday. Choosing what to buy is not as easy as it used to be. Simply popping to the corner shop to buy bread takes longer due to the enormous array of different types of bread available. Online shopping takes us a lot longer due to the amount of incredibly similar products and the fear that we may make the wrong choice. For the average person, this fear leads to many hours of researching and reading reviews so they hopefully make the correct choice.

Too many choices leads to Paralysis

If you ask them, people will tell you that they like choices. Choices equal freedom. However, as Barry notes in the video, it has been proven that offering more choices actually makes choosing more difficult and ultimately to not choosing at all. More choices actually puts more stress on the person making the choice as they have to weigh up all the pros and cons of each. Eventually they either put it off until another day or they give up altogether. The solution is to offer the consumer less choice. You can also guide them into making the correct choice (or the choice you really want them to make!) via persuasive design.

Making choice easier with persuasive design

Persuasive design

Through intelligent design, we can lessen the negative effects of the paradox of choice. Basecamp’s pricing page has been designed to entice the user to the Premium plan. The benefit of this design is the user feels they have choices (yet not too many) and control yet the decision making is less taxing as it has already been done for them.

I just want coffee flavoured coffee!

The comedian Denis Leary performed a hilarious rant on his Lock n Load tour about how difficult it is to now buy coffee flavoured coffee. It certainly highlights why keeping choices to a minimum is a good thing and less stressful for consumers.