The Psychology of Persuasion: How to Improve Your Marketing Efforts (Part 3 of 7 - Consistency)

Updated: June 10, 2011

To Be or Not to Be . . . Consistent

The consistency principle is a big motivator of our behavior, so much so that the tendency to be consistent compels us to do things that we might not ordinarily want to do, even if these decisions and actions are contrary to our own best interests.

For example, consider an experiment to determine if onlookers would risk personal harm to stop a crime. The study involved a research accomplice putting a beach blanket and radio down about five feet away from a randomly selected subject. After a few minutes, the accomplice left to take a walk on the beach. A few minutes later, a second accomplice pretending to be a thief, grabbed the radio and ran off. Only four people out of 20 made any attempt to stop the staged theft.

The same procedure was repeated another 20 times, but with a slight twist. Before taking his stroll on the beach, the accomplice asked the experimental subject to keep an eye on his things. This simple request had dramatic effect on the results, with 19 out of 20 people making rather valiant attempts to pursue the thief and retrieve the stolen radio.

This experiment demonstrates that our need to be consistent is a very powerful motive in the way we behave. It is not difficult to understand why this is so. In most situations, consistency is highly valued and typically is associated with intellectual strength, logic, rationality, stability, and honesty. On the other hand, inconsistency is often associated with the opposite traits.

The Drawbacks of Consistency

Certainly there is a very good reason to be consistent in our daily lives; without consistency, our lives would be erratic, disjointed, and downright difficult.

But automatic consistency does not always yield positive results. Although the habit of behaving consistently may relieve us from the mental energy and hardship of having to weigh the pros and cons every time we take action or make a decision, this shortcut might get us into trouble if we blindly go into default mode.

In addition to using mechanical consistency to deal with complexities in a rather effortless and efficient manner, we rely on consistency to avoid the harsh consequences of cognitive work. When we really think about matters and put in the time to sort through delicate issues, we often happen upon some rather disturbing things about ourselves.

So we end up employing a preprogrammed and mindless approach to resolving our problems as a means to circumvent troubling realizations about who we are and what we do. In other words, relying totally on rigid consistency and refraining from listening to the voice of reason can protect us from the inconvenient consequences of thought.

Therein lies the biggest shortcoming to automatic consistency. If mechanical consistency shields us against thought (and the "truth"), it's really not surprising that this human tendency can be easily exploited by people and organizations who want us to respond mindlessly to their requests for compliance. They merely need to structure their interactions with us in such a way that will activate our own need to be consistent.

Commitment: The Key to Consistency

What mobilizes us to be consistent? Research indicates that if we make a commitment (e.g., take a stand, make a promise, choose something) we automatically tend to behave in ways that are congruent with that commitment.

In our daily lives "compliance professionals" bombard us with their commitment strategies. These strategies, which make use of the connection between commitment and consistency, involve first getting us to take some action or to agree to make an assertion (i.e., getting our commitment) and then using pressure later to comply with a particular request (i.e., engaging the principle of consistency).

Studies consistently show that agreeing to a seemingly trivial request makes it much easier to agree to a significantly larger related request. For example, in one study only 17% of homeowners agreed to having a large public-service billboard (reading "Drive Carefully") installed on their front lawn. A second group of homeowners was asked to display a three-inch square sign (reading "Be a Safe Driver"). Most of these individuals agreed to this small request, and two weeks later 76% of this group agreed to display the much larger billboard on their front lawn.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Research indicates that our actions really do speak louder than our words. We determine what others truly think, believe, and feel by what they do, but not always by what they say. These research findings are not surprising.

What is surprising, however, is this: the same behavioral evidence that people use to figure out who you are is the same information that you use to develop your "self-image," that picture of yourself that incorporates your values, beliefs, and attitudes.

One particular type of behavior has special importance - writing down what you think, believe, and feel. When you express your values, beliefs, and attitudes in written form, you are essentially making commitments. And when these commitments are made public, they tend to be lasting commitments.

So why do people typically go to great lengths to live up to what they have written down? The answer is a bit more complicated than what you might think.

Let's go back to the concept of self-image. Once you have gone public with written statements, the principle of consistency shapes your self-image in two ways. Internally, there is tremendous pressure to bring your self-image into line with what you have claimed on paper. Externally, there is additional pressure to adjust your self-image according to the way others perceive you. And since research shows that others see you as believing what you have written down, you are pressured to bring your self-image into line with your written statements.

What all of this boils down to is that you will consistently tend to behave according to your self-image, which is shaped by your actions, including public, written attestations. To others, you are what you do, and your image of yourself is based largely on your deeds! So when you take a visible stand (e.g., commit to something on paper), you are psychologically inclined to behave accordingly and maintain that stand in order to look like you are being consistent.

More Work Means More Commitment

There is mounting evidence that the more effort you put into a commitment, the greater the chances that it will influence your future attitudes and opinions. Various studies have shown that individuals who experience a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than individuals who attain it with little or no effort.

This phenomenon is well demonstrated in the hazing rituals of college fraternities and also the "boot camp" of the armed services. There is no doubt that the rigors, tribulations, and hardships of such initiation rites make these groups appear more attractive and worthwhile and significantly heighten a newcomer's commitment to the group.

Taking Responsibility

When a commitment is put into action, made public, and involves a degree of effort, it will probably change your self-image and future behavior. But something even more powerful instills commitment in individuals: accepting responsibility.

To clarify this point, take for example the refusal of fraternities to include public-service activities in their initiation rites. They could structure their hazing practices, which involve effortful commitment, around distasteful and strenuous civic activities. But they don't, even though it would improve their unfavorable public image.

The reason is quite simple. They want their new fraternity members to own what they have done. They don't want to give the initiates any opportunity to believe that they suffered through a harsh hazing for charitable purposes. They want to engender commitment by forcing would-be fraternity brothers to take complete responsibility for their actions.

Research shows that we accept responsibility for our behavior when we believe we have acted in a certain way without any strong outside pressures. A belief that participating in a hazing ritual helps a deserving charitable organization (which could be construed as an outside pressure) might motivate immediate compliance, but that belief will not get individuals to accept responsibility for their behavior. Consequently, without accepting responsibility, initiates are less likely to feel committed to their fraternity.

The Magic of Inner Change

Commitments that entail inner change (e.g., often experienced by fraternity initiates and military enlistees) tend to last a long time. For example, someone who has been recruited by a charitable organization may shift her self-image to that of a "public-spirited citizen" and is likely to continue volunteering time to the organization and other charities as long as the new self-image remains intact.

There is another advantage to commitments that lead to inner change: external measures are no longer needed to reinforce the desired behavior. The person who now views herself as "civic-minded" will automatically begin to look at herself differently. She will begin to note available community service opportunities, will be more open to arguments that favor civic action, and will generate additional reasons to justify her original commitment. In other words, she will repeatedly assure herself that her choice to volunteer her time was the right choice and will behave consistently (i.e., continue to volunteer) within her new system of beliefs.

Commitments resulting in some kind of inner change often involve building new perceptions about ourselves, a self-image that supports the choices to which we have become committed.

Throwing a Lowball

Automobile salespeople frequently use the tactic called "throwing a lowball" in which a prospect is offered an excellent price on a car. It is not a genuine good deal, however; it's only purpose is to entice an individual to buy a car. After the prospect considers buying the car for the stated price, the commitment to purchase is reinforced by the automatic tendency to develop additional reasons (besides getting a good price) to support the choice to buy.

After taking the car out for a test drive, completing purchase forms, and arranging for financing (all of which are intended to elongate the process and allow commitment to blossom and grow), something happens. A calculation "error" is discovered, or the sales manager cancels the originally offered price, or something occurs that puts the transaction on hold. Then a new (but still "competitive") price is offered.

Although the many variations of "throwing a lowball" don't work on everybody, this sales tactic is sufficiently effective to be used by many car dealers. They know that personal commitment is a powerful ally. Once a commitment is made (even those gotten by exploitation), people will almost immediately build a support system to justify the commitment. More often than not, these justifications are so strong that the decision to buy is not affected even when the original inducement (i.e., price that is "too good to be true") is removed from the table.

Lowballs are frequently thrown at us outside of the automobile showroom. It's not unusual for this "give-it-and-then-take-it-away-later" tactic to be used in personal, social, and business situations.

For instance, someone might promise you something to get you to do a favor and then renege on the promise after you have performed the favor. Even after the promise is withdrawn, you may still be pleased with your compliant behavior simply because you have undergirded your commitment with other reasons for the choice you made.

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