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Chapter 3: Commitment & Consistency

Hobgoblins of the Mind
"It's easier to resist at the beginning than at the end." ~Leonardo Da Vinci

Another deep and powerful social influence that we exhibit is consistency to a commitment made. We have a desire to be, or appear to be, consistent with what we have already done.

“Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment” (Cialdini, 2009, p 52). The example that Cialdini cites is the confidence bettors portray once they have placed a bet on a particular horse. Once the ticket is purchased, the prospects for that horse winning improve significantly in the mind of the bettor.

Automatic Consistency

Consistency is a powerful principle in guiding human action. Festinger (1957), Heider (1946), and Newcomb (1953) viewed the desire for consistency as a central motivator of behavior (p 53). A research example shows that if someone asks us to watch their belongings, we're more likely to try to capture a thief who tries to steal them than if we had not been asked. Consistency is a powerful motivator for action because it is generally valued as a character trait, and is the basis of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty. An inconsistent person, commonly though to be an undesirable trait, is often seen as confused, difficult, erratic or undisciplined.

Automatic consistency offers a shortcut through the complexities of life’s many decisions, but it can lead to unintended consequences and behaviors not in our best interest. Automatic consistency can be a defense against unwanted dilemmas, or disturbing emotional reactions such as guilt and shame, and safeguards against deeper thought.

Cialdini’s example of Transcendental Meditation (TM): interested people signed up for TM courses after the recruiters’ pitch was challenged for its logic. Cialdini argues that they needed to make a decision rapidly before the logic presented shattered their hope of finding a solution to their problems (2009, p 54-56).

Professionals exploit our need to be consistent to their benefit, preferring our tendency to respond without thinking. Toy manufacturers use this to drive sales. Historically the peak season is Christmas with a slump in the following months. The manufactures and marketers created a strategy where they undersupply new toys during the Christmas season which parents have promised children they will give them for Christmas. This had caused big problems for parents, stores, and kids – the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls incidents in the 1980s is a good example of this though there are many. Parents would flock to stores to buy hard-to-find dolls, even breaking into fights to secure the limited commodity. When the toys become available in the months after the holiday season, the parents, even though they have already purchased other toys to make up for the one that wasn't available, are compelled to purchase the product for their kids.

Commitment is the Key
According to social psychologists, commitment is the key element that reinforces the behavior of consistency. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand. In an auto sales interaction, one strategy is to begin to write onto either paper or sales agreement, the details such as color, style, add-ons etc. This creates an easier path for the interested party to turn into a contract-signing customer. Selling up is another good example. Once a salesperson has an agreement for a small purchase, they will often attempt to increase the purchase based on the previous commitment.

Making commitments visible have power. Cialdini argues that commitments made publicly tend to be lasting commitments. Propaganda is often structured in this way. Cialdini offers an example of prisoners in Korea. The Chinese made visible pro-Communist statements made by their captors. There is a tendency to remain consistent to a stand that is made visible publically. Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. Rituals and declarations are a powerful force for ensuring consistency and commitment, and are important elements of our culture. Marriage, baptism, bar mitzvahs, and initiations all involve public declaration of intent.

According to Cialdini, the only effective defense is awareness and although consistency is generally good, even vital, there is a foolish, rigid variety to be avoided. The task to become consciously aware rests with each individual. Automatic consistency has its use and place. The way out is to recognize the personal signs that can lead the way out of poor choices. Cialdini offers three signals: stomach signs, heart-of-heart signs and special vulnerabilities.

Stomach signs occur with uneasiness in the pit of the stomach that we are about to behave or comply in ways that we might later regret.

Heart-of-hearts signs occur less so obviously than the “pit in the stomach” but rather a feeling or sense that often precedes thought or action. While subtler, it’s the heart of the truth in each individual, and can become a rich source of information.

Special vulnerabilities include age and individual strong cultural and personal factors.

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th edition). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.