Commitment and Consistency

‘It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end’ – Leonardo da Vinci

The rule for commitment and consistency is ‘our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) 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.’

This is the third post in a series on Robert B. Chialdini’s classic work on the study of persuasion, compliance and change, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition. ‘The drive to be (and look) consistent constitutes a highly potent weapon of social influence, often causing us to act in ways that are clearly contrary to our own best interests.’ Its easy to understand why consistency is a powerful motive. ‘Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill.’ Think of how we scrutinize and then criticize politicians for evidence of flip-flopping. ‘On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.’

Acting consistently is usually in our best interests, and so we do it automatically. It is part of what Daniel Kahneman describes as system 1, in Thinking, Fast and Slow. The first attraction of consistency is that ‘it offers a shortcut through the density of modern life.  Once we’ve made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore.’

The second attraction of consistency is not only that it lets us avoid hard (mental) work, it also lets us avoid the results. Once discovered through diligent (mental) application, truth can be inconvenient! It is often easier to fool ourselves by resisting the path of logic. ‘automatic consistency can supply a safe hiding place from those troubling realizations. Sealed within the fortress wall of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.”

The key that unlocks the consistency response is commitment‘If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.’ 

This is an area well-studied within psychological research, and Chialdini illustrates with several examples including Steven J. Sherman’s experiment with collecting donations door-to-door, and Chinese techniques for extracting compliance from America POWs in World War II. The main insight is to start small and build. A small concession or agreement will increase our compliance with similar but much larger requests, and ‘can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier. It’s this second, general kind of influence concealed within small commitments that scares me. It scares me enough that I am rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support.’

External pressure to appear consistent adds to the internal pressure when a commitment is public. This is why writing things down is such an effective compliance technique. ‘Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person. For appearances’ sake, then, the more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it.’

The greater the effort that goes into a making commitment, the greater its ability to influence the person making the commitment. This is why a written commitment is more effective than a verbal commitment. It is also why initiation ceremonies persist, whether the boyhood rite of passage in an African tribe, ‘Hell Week’ in a college fraternity or ‘boot camp’ initiations in the military. Each includes beatings, exposure, thirst, hunger and punishment, and yet produce people committed to the group. In a 1959 study researchers Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills constructed an experiment where some college women had to endure a severely embarrassing initiation ceremony to gain access to a sex discussion group. Those who did found the group to me more interesting and valuable, even though the researchers rehearsed the group to be ‘as worthless and pointless’ as possible. Those women who went through a milder initiation ceremony were less positive about the group.

A commitment is more powerful when we accept inner responsibility for our actions. And that happens when we think we’ve made the choice without strong outside pressures. Consider what (most) parents learn raising children. ‘It suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten our children to do the things we want them truly to believe in. Such pressures will probably produce temporary compliance with our wishes. However, if we want more than just that, …, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take.’

Low-balling is a tried-and-true tactic used by compliance professionals to exploit commitment and consistency. It starts with a price they don’t intend to honor but once you’ve decided to buy (commitment) you buy anyway (consistency), even when the car salesman comes back and said there’s been a mistake, and that this car has the navigation package and its $1000 extra.

‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘Although consistency is generally good, even vital, there is a foolish, rigid variety to be shunned. It is the tendency to be automatically and unthinkingly consistent that Emerson referred to. And it is this tendency that we must be wary of, for it lays us open to the maneuvers of those who want to exploit the mechanical commitment -> consistency sequence for profit.’

How to Say No

Chialdini advises us to go with the gut. ‘The first sort of signal is easy to recognize. It occurs right in the pit of our stomachs when we realize we are trapped into complying with a request we know we don’t want to perform.’ And then to point out what is going on. ‘I just tell them exactly what they are doing. It works beautifully. Most of the time, they don’t understand me; they just become sufficiently confused to want to leave me alone.’

He does acknowledge that there are times it may not be as easy to figure out what is going on. For that he relies on ‘the one place where we cannot fool ourselves’, what we call our heart of hearts. ‘It is the one place where none of our justifications, none of our rationalizations penetrate.’ Here he advises us to sleep on it and then ask ‘Knowing what I now know, if I could go back in time, would I make the same choice’.


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