Commitment and Consistency: Are You Loyal to Bad Ideas?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Influence" by Robert B. Cialdini. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever followed through on a decision even if you doubted it? Maybe you felt like it was too late or you were already in too deep. Maybe you didn’t want to look like a flip-flopper. You were probably being driven by commitment and consistency principles.

The Consistency Principle of persuasion is the tendency for humans to commit to a course of action or to a belief and to pressure themselves to conform to that commitment. Learn how the commitment and consistency are used to manipulate you through a consistency concept example.

Defining Commitment and Consistency

The Consistency Principle of persuasion says that humans have an obsession with sticking to their guns. Consistency is closely related to the commitment principle. Once we’ve committed to a course of action or to a belief, we pressure ourselves to conform to that commitment. We go through great mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that our current behavior and beliefs align with our past behavior and beliefs, even when they clearly don’t.

In one Canadian study, experimenters looked at the beliefs and behavior of bettors at a racetrack. Thirty seconds before they placed their bets, they were uncertain about their horse. Just thirty seconds after, however they were far more optimistic and confident in their choices. Nothing had objectively changed in this short span of time. The Consistency Principle just forced the bettors to bring their beliefs into line with the action they had already committed to.

Commitment and consistency create a valuable opening for those ever-present compliance practitioners. By getting you to make just a small commitment, a skilled compliance practitioner can get you to make larger and larger ones. This consistency concept example shows how your decisions are being influenced.

Freedom From Thought: Why We’re So Consistent

Like the other instincts, consistency and commitment principles are powerful instincts that usually do lead us to the correct conclusions and behaviors. Consistency is a luxury: it frees us from having to assess each situation individually. But it also creates a bias.

We don’t have to weigh every pro and con, sift through every obscure fact, or think through every possible ramification of every decision. Instead, we have an easy, one-size-fits-all guide for how to react to a multitude of situations and people that we encounter each day. 

The obvious benefits of commitment and consistency are why we value it so highly and have great disdain for those who don’t seem to embody it. We label people whose words and deeds don’t align as indecisive, weak, vacillating, and even dishonest.

(Shortform note: In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Democratic nominee John Kerry was lambasted by the media and his political opponents for his alleged inconsistency and was labeled a “flip-flopper.” This was based chiefly on his incongruous votes and statements with regard to the Iraq War. Exit poll results showed that this criticism of Kerry’s character played a role in his narrow defeat).

Conversely, we view people who exhibit high levels of commitment and consistency as being strong, decisive, resolute, and honest. Thus, there is a strong social incentive for us to be consistent in our words, deeds, and even our thoughts.

Getting a Foot in the Door

By getting you to make one small commitment, savvy compliance practitioners know how to rope you along and lock you into progressively larger commitments. This is the time-honored “foot-in-the-door” sales tactic using the commitment principle. The consistency concept example below will show you just how effective this technique can be.

Consistency Concept Example: “Drive Carefully”

In a study conducted in California in the 1960s, a researcher posing as a volunteer worker went door-to-door asking residents if they would be willing to install a small, three-square-inch sign on their front lawn that read “BE A SAFE DRIVER.” Since it appeared to be a well-intentioned and public-spirited request that involved no sacrifice on the part of the homeowner, the great majority of respondents said yes. This set into motion the commitment principle.

Two weeks later, the research team went back to the same neighborhood and asked people if they would consent to having a massive, unattractive billboard (one that would almost obscure their entire house) that read “DRIVE CAREFULLY” set up on their property. They were testing commitment and consistency.

Among those who hadn’t been asked to install the small sign two weeks before, the response was expected: 83 percent said no to the outlandish request, and only 17 percent said yes. But among those who had been asked and said yes to that earlier request, the results were startling: 76 percent of them agreed to let their front yards be taken up by the billboard! Their earlier commitment made these homeowners far more willing to comply with the second, larger request.

The researchers then replicated their experiment in another California neighborhood, but this time with a twist. They sent a researcher (again posing as a volunteer) around to make another simple request: this time, for residents to sign a petition to “keep California beautiful.” Then, two weeks later, they sent a different “volunteer” around to ask the petition-signers if they would consent to erecting the same massive billboard on their lawns that the previous group had been asked to. Around half of the petition-signers agreed to this obviously preposterous request because of commitment and consistency!

But how could this be? The first commitment was about state beautification, while the second was about driver safety. The two commitments seemingly had nothing to do with each other. How could they have been linked by the Consistency Principle of persuasion?

Commitment and consistency go hand-in-hand, because the researchers had altered their subjects’ self-identity. By signing the petition, residents came to view themselves as civic-minded, public-spirited citizens. With this newfound identity, the Consistency Principle of persuasion did the rest of the work: they complied in order to be consistent with their new vision of themselves.

Commitment and Consistency: Are You Loyal to Bad Ideas?

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  • How professional manipulators use your psychology against you
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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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