In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman explains a very simple psychology experiment performed by Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott in 1970. In an attempt to study reciprocity, the two psychologists sent christmas letters to randomly selected names and addresses from a local phone book. Wiseman did not provide numbers, but he did say that a majority of the people who had been sent Christmas Cards responded to the letter they received from Kunz and Woolcott. The study highlights that people have a desire to reciprocate the positive and considerate actions of other people. I read a little more from this study adding my own note to the section I just described. To me, the entire experiment showed how eager people are to connect with others.
Sending someone a letter engages with them on their own terms. We are sending them something that will meet them in their own comfortable home in a nonthreatening manner, and this makes it easy for people to respond and build a social bridge. When we are willing to meet people on their own terms and engage with people in areas that are comfortable for them, we will get positive responses that build the social structure around us.
I think this would be an interesting experiment to perform in the United States today. It was not clear from Wiseman’s writing whether Kunz and Woolcott performed their experiment in the United States or Wiseman’s home country of England, and I believe that the continental differences could have a large impact on the results. I think the most interesting factor in a similar experiment today would be the social media, advertising, and identity theft impact on our social behaviors. Receiving messages from strangers on Facebook can be a scary thing and having someone watch us through social media channels can be creepy to the point where you wonder if someone is following you to gain information that could be used to either harm you or market goods and services to you.
I am sure that in our very connected world, sending electronic correspondence, depending on the social media channel, would show very different reciprocity results than sending a holiday letter in the 1970’s. Randomly messaging/mentioning a person on twitter is far more accepted and will get greater rates of response then messaging a stranger on Facebook. Outside of the electronic world, sending a letter through the mail would still be an interesting experiment. Our lives may be more complicated and busy than the lives of British citizens in the 1970’s, and we are less accustomed to receiving letters from people whether we know them or not. Having Americans take the time to sit down and read a letter from a stranger and then actually reply could be a rare occurrence in 2015 even though we are wired to reciprocate or at least by social.