How to Get What You Want “Consistently”

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m currently reading Robert Cialdini’s classic book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”. It’s an interesting read.

In the third chapter titled “Commitment and Consistency”, Cialdini talks about a study done by a pair of Canadian psychologists. What they found was that just after placing a bet at the racetrack, people were much more confident of winning than they were immediately before they placed their bet.

Why the change?

Well, it seems that if we make a commitment we will go to great lengths to be consistent with that commitment.

Cialdini cites a study done by psychologist Thomas Moriarty that demonstrates the power of our commitment to consistency.

Moriarty staged thefts on a New York beach to see if onlookers would risk personal harm in order to halt a crime. In his study, a researcher put down a blanket five feet from a randomly-chosen individual. The researcher would then lay on the blanket while listening to a portable radio. After a few minutes, he would leave. Then a few minutes later, another researcher, pretending to be a thief would grab the radio and run away with it. Out of 22 people, only four people ran after the thief in an attempt to retrieve the radio.

They then staged the same event, with a slight twist.

This time before going for a stroll, the researcher asked the targeted individual if they would “watch my things”. Propelled with a desire to be consistent with what they agreed to, 19 out of 20 people ran after the person who took the radio.

So why is the need to be consistent such a powerful motivator?

Cialdini points out that inconsistency is thought to be an undesirable characteristic – inconsistent people are thought to be indecisive, confused, two-faced, and even mentally ill.

On the flip side, good personal consistency is highly valued in our culture. People with a high degree of consistency are also thought to possess a high degree of personal and intellectual strength.

Cialdini adds that consistency allows us another luxury. We really don’t have to think that hard about the issue anymore. We don’t have to weigh the pros and cons because we’ve already made up out mind. When confronted with a situation we merely turn on our “consistency tape” and we know exactly what to believe, say or do.

Later on in the chapter, Cialdini talks about another study done by social psychologist Steven J. Sherman.

Sherman called a sample of Bloomington, Indiana residents and asked them to predict what they would say if they were asked to spend three hours collecting money for the American Red Cross. Not wanting to seem uncharitable, many people said they would volunteer.

A few days later an American Cancer Society representative actually did call and asked them if they’d like to help out canvassing. The result was a 700 percent increase in the number of volunteers. Using this same strategy, they asked residence of Columbus Ohio to predict whether they would vote on Election Day (for U.S. President). They found there was a significant increase in turnout on Election Day of those called.

Cialdini tells us that during the Korean War, unlike some of their allies who choose to use harsh and brutal techniques, the Chinese used a concerted and sophisticated psychological assault on American prisoners of war.

Their commitment strategy was to start “small and build”.

They would first ask American prisoners-of-war to make mildly anti-American or pro-Communist statements like “The United States is not perfect” or “In a Communist country unemployment is not a problem”. Once these request were met, they pushed the prisoners for related but more substantial request such as making a list of “problems with America” and signing their name to it.

This “small and build” approach is also used by many business organizations.

The strategy is to obtain a larger sale by starting with a small one. The purpose behind the small transaction is not profit, but commitment.

A bit later Cialdini talks about another fascinating study done in the mid-1960s by psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser.

A researcher, posing as a volunteer, went door-to-door in California asking homeowners to agree to a preposterous request. The researcher asked people if they’d be willing to have an over-sized public service sign with the words “DRIVE CAREFULLY” installed on their front yard. 83 percent refused.

However in another neighbourhood, 76 percent of the people asked agreed to have the sign placed on their lawn.

Why such a big difference?

Two weeks earlier a volunteer worker had come to their door and asked them to accept small three inch square sign that said “Be a safe driver”. Because of agreeing to comply with a small safe-driving request, over three quarters of them were willing to comply with the larger request two weeks later.

Freedman and Fraser added another twist to the study.

With another group of homeowners, instead of offering them a small “Be a safe driver” sign, they went door-to-door and asked people if they’d be willing to sign a “Keep California Beautiful” petition.

When they went back two weeks later, approximately half of the people agreed to have the huge “DRIVE CAREFULLY” sign installed on their front yard.

At first Freedman and Fraser were bewildered, but then they realized that by signing the petition people had changed their view of themselves. They now saw themselves as public-spirited citizens who acted on their civic principles.

Two weeks later they complied with the request to display the “DRIVE CAREFULLY” sign in order to be consistent with their new self-image.

So the next time you’re asked to comply with a small request or sign a petition, don’t take it lightly. It could be someone laying the ground work to exploit your natural commitment to consistency. Plus it could change your self-image in ways you may or may not like.

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Published: July 30, 2009

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