Framing a Reciprocal Interview

Originally posted on Humintell’s website on March 19th, 2018 (

What is the impact of offering an interviewee a bottle of water?

This seemingly innocuous question actually delves into major questions both with regard to communication but interviewing techniques more specifically. By looking at this basic question in a recent study, Humintell’s Drs. David Matsumoto and Hyisung Hwang were attempting to look at the notion of reciprocity and whether more reciprocal interviewing tactics contribute to boosting rapport and information gathering.

The subject of reciprocity essentially looks at the idea that people want to return or reciprocate favors offered to them. So, if an interviewee is offered the simple kindness of bottled water, they would be more likely to feel obliged to provide additional information during the course of the interview.

Reciprocity is just one form of what is known as “social influence.” The theoretical literature identifies six principles of social influence that hold across cultures, but this study focuses on reciprocity which had been identified as one of the more powerful and pervasive aspects of social influence.

The study in question divided experimental groups around this simple treatment, offering water to half the participants. They hypothesized that this would boost rapport between interviewer and interviewee and would result in more relevant and plausible information.

These experimental groups were also divided internally between those who were asked to lie and those asked to tell the truth about whether they had stolen a $200 check. The experiment was set up to incentivize participants to lie to their best ability, as they were told that being suspected of deception would result in an extra-long questionnaire after the interview.

Drs. Matsumoto and Hwang found general support for their hypotheses. Liars tended to give more relevant and plausible details after being offered water. Interestingly, neither ethnicity nor culture had an impact. Rapport was also boosted by the reciprocal treatment.

This has significant ramifications for both interviewing tactics and efforts to boost rapport in social situations. When rapport was high, the interrogation proved more fruitful, and reciprocity helped accomplish that! This means that when interviewing an individual, efforts intended to elicit reciprocity may be helpful, even though an actual interview situation is generally a bit higher stakes.

But what does this mean for those of us who are just trying to get better at reading people? Sure, we can offer people we meet bottles of water, but that might be socially out of place! However, the basic principle of reciprocity will hold.

By offering something, be it a compliment, personal information about ourselves, or a gift, we can help create a sense of reciprocity, boosting rapport and better enabling us to know about other people. This is not just some manipulative tactic but also a way of developing better interactions and getting to know people!