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Bah Humbug: Unexpected Christmas Cards and the Reciprocity Norm



The reciprocity norm refers to the expectation that people will help those who helped them. A well-known study revealed that the norm is strong with Christmas cards, with 20% of people reciprocating a Christmas card received from a stranger. I attempted to conceptually replicate and extend this effect. In Study 1, 755 participants received a Christmas card supposedly from a more versus less similar stranger. The reciprocation rate was unexpectedly low (2%), which did not allow for a test of a similarity effect. Two potential reasons for this low rate were examined in Study 2 in which 494 participants reported their likelihood of reciprocating a Christmas card from a stranger as well as their felt suspicions/threat about the card and their frequency of e-mail use. Reciprocation likelihood was negatively correlated with perceived threat/suspicion and e-mail use. It appears that reciprocating a gift from a stranger in offline settings may be less likely than expected.
Bah humbug: Unexpected Christmas cards and the reciprocity
Brian P. Meier
Gettysburg College
The reciprocity norm refers to the expectation that people will help those
who helped them. A well-known study revealed that the norm is strong
with Christmas cards, with 20% of people reciprocating a Christmas card
received from a stranger. I attempted to conceptually replicate and extend
this effect. In Study 1, 755 participants received a Christmas card suppo-
sedly from a more- versus less-similar stranger. The reciprocation rate was
unexpectedly low (2%), which did not allow for a test of a similarity effect.
Two potential reasons for this low rate were examined in Study 2 in which
494 participants reported their likelihood of reciprocating a Christmas card
from a stranger as well as their felt suspicions/threat about the card and
their frequency of e-mail use. Reciprocation likelihood was negatively cor-
related with perceived threat/suspicion and e-mail use. It appears that
reciprocating a gift from a stranger in offline settings may be less likely
than expected.
Received 4 September 2015
Accepted 17 November
Christmas cards; greeting
cards; norm of reciprocity;
social norms
The reciprocity norm refers to an expectation that people will help those who helped them (Cialdini,
2001; Gouldner, 1960). The norm reflects the idea you scratch my back and Ill scratch yoursand is
based on the fact that humans evolved in groups in which reciprocation was beneficial for survival
(Trivers, 1971). Many studies have examined the reciprocity norm. For example, in early work by
Regan (1971), participants in a study supposedly about aesthetics were more likely to buy raffle
tickets from another participant if that participant first gave them a drink. Other research found
similar results in that small gifts or help cause people to reciprocate by delivering an envelope
(Burger, Horita, Kinoshita, Roberts, & Vera, 1997), completing an opinion survey (Jacob, Guéguen,
& Boulbry, 2015), or helping co-workers (Deckop, Cirka, & Andersson, 2003).
In a compelling test of the norm, Kunz and Woolcott (1976) examined whether people would
send a Christmas card to a complete stranger who sent them one. They sent 578 Christmas cards to
strangers. The researchers manipulated four variables, card quality, sender social status, receiver
social status, and urban/rural location in the United States. The return rate was greater for high
quality cards, high sender social status, low receiver social status, and rural versus urban locations,
but the noteworthy finding was the overall response rate of 20%. The reciprocity norm was so strong
that 20% of people sent a Christmas card to a complete stranger. Kunz (2000) found the same 20%
response rate.
These studies are powerful examples of the reciprocity norm because receivers had no obligation
to send a card, but 20% of them did. Popular media (Spiegel, 2012), blogs (Tannenbaum, 2015), and
textbooks (Gilovich, Keltner, Chen, & Nisbett, 2013) cite these studies to highlight the impact of the
norm. However, I am unaware of studies that have conceptually replicated the effect or examined
additional moderators.
CONTACT Brian P. Meier Department of Psychology, Gettysburg College, 300 North Washington,
Gettysburg, PA 17036, USA.
© 2016 Taylor & Francis
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Perceived similarity is a potential moderator. People are more likely to help others when they
perceive them as similar to themselves (Dovidio, Piliavin, Schroeder, & Penner, 2006). For example,
people are more helpful to strangers when those strangers are similar in appearance (Emswiller,
Deaux, & Willits, 1971), opinions (Sole, Marton, Hornstein, 1975), or surnames (Guéguen, Pichot, &
Le Dreff, 2005). Kunz and Woolcott (1976) examined sender and receiver social status but did not
find a similarity effect. It appears that social status similarities may not have been apparent in this
context. The purpose of Study 1 was to conceptually replicate the study by Kunz and Woolcott
(1976) as well as examine perceived similarity. I expected to replicate the 20% response and to find
that people would be more likely to send a return Christmas card when they perceived the sender as
similar to them in an important context related to Christmas cardsreligiosity.
Study 1
Participants received one of two cards that were identical except for the message: either Merry
Christmas(religious card) or Happy Holidays(non-religious card). The cards were sent to people
located in two citiesHolland, MI, and Bremerton, WAthat were approximately similar in terms
of population, income, and race (, but they differed in the extent to which people
reported being religious, The Gallop Organization (Newport, 2012) surveyed 245,000 adults in the
United States on their church attendance and importance of religion. Fifty-five percent of people
living in Holland, MI, were highly religious, and 21% were not religious, versus 25% of people living
in Bremerton, WA who where highly religious, and 50% who were not religious. This survey is not a
perfect measure of the religiousness of a given random participant, but it reveals that over twice as
many people are highly religious in Holland, MI, versus in Bremerton, WA. I therefore expected that
more people from Holland, MI, would send a return card when they received the religious versus
non-religious card, but the opposite pattern was expected for Bremerton, WA.
Past work (Kunz, 2000;Kunz & Woolcott, 1976) involved samples of approximately 600. I
boosted this number to 800 participants (516 males) who lived in Holland, MI, (400 participants)
or Bremerton, WA (400 participants). Participants were randomly chosen from directories
provided by Polk Directories for a fee (as done in Kunz & Woolcott, 1976). Age and race were
not available.
and procedure
I followed the procedures of Kunz and Woolcott (1976) as much as possible. I sent high quality cards to
participants and used my name on the return address. Participants from each city were randomly
divided into two groups of 200. Each group was sent a red card that had either Merry Christmasor
Happy Holidayswritten on the front in white font (purchased from Delivery
addresses were handwritten, and the return address was on a sticker and included my first and last name
and a P.O. box at my post office. The inside of each card had the words Best Wishes for a Happy
Holiday/Merry Christmas!and was hand-signed with my first name. Cards were mailed on December
, 2014. After the holidays, participants received a debriefing letter that explained the study.
Participants who sent a card were given a postage stamp and a $5 Amazon gift card.
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Results and discussion
Forty-five of the 800 cards were returned to sender because of an incorrect address.
These participants were removed from the sample, leaving 755 participants. Returned cards
were equally distributed between cities and card type (both χ
ps > .396). Neither Kunz and
Woolcott (1976)norKunz(2000) reported the number of returned cards. Fifteen or 2% of
participants reciprocated or sent a return card. This rate was significantly less than the
(1, N= 755) = 153.11, p< .001, Cramers
Phi = .45. My response rate was unexpectedly low, which did not allow for an examination
of similarity.
I focused on potential reasons for the lack of conceptual replication and abandoned the similarity
hypothesis. I did not manipulate card quality, sender or receiver social status, and urban/rural
location like Kunz and Woolcott (1976), but I expected to obtain a somewhat comparable response
rate given the similarity of the study. The response rate was so low (2% vs. 20%) that differences in
methodology are unlikely to be the only cause. There are at least two possibilities for the low
response rate. One, after the study, I received e-mails and letters from 12 participants. Although
most of these communications were positive, three participants stated that the unexpected card was
suspicious and troubling because they worried that a stranger had their address. This response was
unexpected, but it seemed likely that other participants felt similarly, which possibly reduced
reciprocation. There is more to be distrustful about in 2014 compared to 1976, such as identify
theft. This possibility was examined using data from the General Social Survey (Smith, Marsden,
Hout, & Kim, 2014), which has been conducted since 1972 to study trends in the United States. One
question asks, Can people be trusted?(response options included cannot be trusted, it depends,
and can be trusted). Participants in 2014 (519 of 1,683 or 30.8%) were significantly less likely to state
that people can be trustedthan participants in 2000 (662 of 1,879 or 35.2%) or 1976 (664 of 1,495
or 44.40%), χ
(4, N= 5,057) = 74.00, p< .001, Cramers Phi = .09. This reason was examined more
directly in Study 2.
A second potential reason for the lowresponserateisthattheoriginal studies were conducted
in years (1976 and 2000) before e-mail and social media were part of peopleseverydaylives.In
the current era of big data and strategic marketing, people receive emails and mail asking them to
donate or buy products. Such communications were less common at the time of the original
studies, which may have made receiving a Christmas card from a stranger a more compelling act
that needed to be reciprocated. Furthermore, email enables people to easily communicate with
friends and relatives, which could decrease the value of a physical Christmas card. This issue was
examined in Study 2.
Study 2
Study 2 involved participants from Amazons MTurk who were asked to imagine that they received a
Christmas card from a complete stranger and then to report the extent to which they would send a
return card and how suspicious they would be about this card. Participants were also asked to report
their e-mail and social media use. I expected that e-mail and social media use and suspicion/threat
would be negatively related to reciprocation likelihood.
Data was collected from Amazon MTurk in April 2015. The study was programmed to collect 500
participants but finished with 499. Five participants were eliminated because they completed the
study before or did not answer all questions. Participantsmean age was 30.87 (SD = 9.78) years, and
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294 were male (194 females; 6 non-report). The race breakdown was 361 Caucasian, 69 Asian/Pacific
Islander, 30 Hispanic, 18 Black, 6 American Indian/Alaskan Native, 4 mixed, 4 unknown, and 2 non-
Materials and procedure
Participants were paid $.10 to complete a judgment study.They were asked to imagine that
you received a Christmas card in the mail from an individual who is a complete stranger. The
envelope and card are addressed to you.Participants answered two questions: How likely is it
that you would send a return Christmas Card to this stranger via the U.S. mail? How likely
would this unexpected Christmas Card make you feel suspicious or threatened?) using a 7-point
scale (1 = not at all likely; 4 = somewhat likely; 7 = very likely). Next, participants answered
two questions about email (How often do you use email?) and social media (How often do you
use social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.?) using a 6-point scale (1 = never,
2 = less than once a month, 3 = at least once a month, 4 = at least once a week, 5 = daily,
6 = multiple times a day). Participants then completed demographic questions and were
Results and discussion
Table 1 lists descriptive statistics and correlations. Reciprocation likelihood was significantly and
negatively related to felt suspicion/threat and e-mail use but not social media use. Although the
correlations are small, they suggest that a potential reason for the lower reciprocation rate in Study 1
was the suspiciousness of the card and participantsfrequency of e-mail use. People seem less likely
to correspond with someone they consider suspicious, and it appears that people who use e-mail
more frequently may be less likely to return a Christmas card. Social media use was not related to
reciprocation likelihood.
General discussion
In Study 1, I attempted to conceptually replicate and extend reciprocation studies from 1976 (Kunz
& Woolcott) and 2000 (Kunz) that found that 20% of participants sent a return Christmas card to a
stranger. A surprisingly low reciprocation rate of 2% was found, which did not allow for a test of a
similarity hypothesis. In Study 2, peoples self-reports of their likelihood of reciprocating an
unexpected card sent by a stranger was negatively related to how suspicious/threatened they
would feel by the card and their frequency of email use.
Although the current studies have limitations (e.g., self-reported data and uncertainty of the
similarity manipulations), they suggest that the reciprocity norm may have lost its power in the
context of reciprocating a greeting card from a stranger. It is not exactly clear why the response
rate was so low, but Study 2 and the data from the General Social Survey suggest that peoples
distrust of others and their frequent use of e-mail may make them less likely to attend to and
Table 1. Means, standard deviations, and correlations for the variables collected in Study 2.
Mean (SD) Correlation with Reciprocation Likelihood
Reciprocation Likelihood 2.37 (SD = 1.73)
Felt Suspicion/Threat 3.99 (SD = 1.76) r=.19*
E-mail Use 5.35 (SD = .94) r=.12*
Social Media Use 4.86 (SD = 1.37) r= .04
*p< .001; N= 494.
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reciprocate an unexpected Christmas card. The reciprocity norm is strong in face-to-face
requests (Jacob et al., 2015), but it may be less impactful in offline situations involving
strangers. It seems likely that most of the Christmas cards sent to participants ended up in
the trashcan rather than in the return card pile.
1. The complete materials and data for both studies are available online and can be accessed from this permanent
link: (Meier, 2015).
The author thanks Gettysburg College for supporting this research and Courtney M. Lappas for her help with the
Notes on contributor
Brian P. Meier is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Gettysburg College. His research interests include aggression,
embodiment, mindfulness, pro-social behavior, and social norms.
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In this later chapter Brian Young shifts to the latter part of the cycle of consumption when purchase has been made and goods enter the world of the child to be consumed and consequently affect his or her identity. A sense of ownership emerges remarkably early. We also explore the world of gift giving where children have a significant role to play especially during the various festivals in the year. Transition objects, small toys like teddies you used to own as very young child, provide a fascinating side-trip and we end in the familiar world of adolescence with their tribes and fashions.
Full-text available
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This experiment examines whether individuals return favors when they receive an initial favor in an interviewer-administrated street survey solicitation setting. In the favor condition, a confederate offers a piece of candy to the participants walking in the street and then asks them to participate in a survey. In the no-favor condition, participants don't receive a piece of candy, but are only solicited for the survey. Results show that a favor compared to no favor is associated with greater compliance with the request.
The norm of reciprocity is a widely accepted social rule that requires us to return favors to those who do something nice for us. We conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that the obligation to return favors diminishes as the amount of time between the initial favor and the opportunity to reciprocate grows. Participants in the first experiment were given an opportunity to return a favor either 5 min or 1 week after receiving a free soft drink from a confederate. Participants in the 5-min condition agreed to the confederate's request to deliver an envelope across campus more often than control group participants receiving only the request. However, participants in the 1-week condition showed no significant reciprocity effect. Participants in the second experiment indicated in hypothetical scenarios that they would be less likely to return a favor as the length of time since the favor increased. We interpret the findings to mean that the norm of reciprocity does not mandate an open-ended obligation to retum a favor. Rather, the social rule requires only that we return acts of kindness within a reasonable period of time.
Examined the relationship between selected social factors (characteristics of both receivers and senders and quality of the greeting cards) and the propensity of individuals to respond to greetings commemorating a social occasion (Christmas holidays in 1974). Ss consisted of a random sample of 578 persons from a large midwestern city and from a smaller rural area. Only persons of high occupational prestige (e.g., doctors, lawyers, accountants) and those of obvious blue-collar occupations were used. The status of the sender was manipulated by using a return address to depict high and low social statuses ("Dr and Mrs" vs the 1st names of both husband and wife without any title and with several children's names on the card). Three levels of card quality were also used. Any type of reply to the card sent to the unknown people was counted as a return. Results show that each of the main factors (location of receiver, receiver status, card quality, and sender status) had a significant effect on responses. Five significant interactions were also found: Receiver Location * Receiver Status, Receiver Location * Card Quality, Receiver Status * Card Quality, Receiver Status * Sender Status, and Card Quality * Sender Status. Overall, status appeared to be a very important variable; high status on the part of the sender increased the response rate (cards and telephone calls) to a very significant degree, especially for blue-collar receivers. That the respondents (20% of the original sample) did not inquire about the identity of the sender requires further study. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
To determine whether correspondence in appearance between helper and helped will increase the rate of helping behavior, two types (Hippie and Straight) and two sexes of experimenters approached each of the four corresponding types of subjects and asked to borrow a dime for a telephone call. As predicted, a significantly greater number of persons were willing to lend money to someone who resembled them in appearance. Furthermore, as predicted, his tendency to match on the basis of appearance was stronger for male subjects than for female subjects. It was hypothesized that dress styles, like race, provide a basis for assumptions about other areas of similarity and create a greater willingness to help a similar other.