Today, you’re going to learn why you should always ask that stranger to guard your bag at the airport; how a simple phone call increased donations to the American Cancer Society by 700%; how people get slowly roped into huge commitments without realizing in, and much more.
If you missed last week’s episode about weapons of influence don’t worry, I’ll explain the series now, but you should go back and listen to it. For those of you who tuned in last week, here’s a quick refresher on the Weapons of Influence series. This is the second of a six part series based on the bestselling book, Influence, by Robert Cialdini. If you loved that book this will be a great refresher on the core concepts, and if you haven’t read it yet some of this stuff is going to blow your mind.
So, what are the six weapons of influence? Reciprocation, which we talked about last week, and I highly recommend after you listen to this, go back and listen to Reciprocation so that you can get all six of the weapons; consistency and commitment, that’s what we’re going to talk about this week; social proof, that’s next week’s episode; liking, authority, and scarcity. Each one of these weapons can be a powerful tool in your tool belt, and something to watch out for when others try to wield them against you. Alone each of them can create crazy outcomes in our lives, and in social situations, but together or combined, they can result in huge impacts.
If you remember in episode one we talked about the biological limits of the human mind. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet you should absolutely go back and check it out. In that episode we talked about the automatic click whirr response that gets triggered when a cognitive bias comes into play; how evolutionarily beneficial traits and behaviors can sometimes manifest themselves in ridiculous outcomes, like the example of a mother turkey taking care of a polecat, which happens to be its natural predator and enemy. These weapons of influence are exactly those kinds of cognitive biases. We’re really going to get into the meat of some of the most powerful cognitive biases that cause human decision making to go haywire. These weapons of influence can be used to manipulate you if you don’t know how to defend against them, and can be part of your arsenal if you learn how to harness them. As Cialdini described weapons of influence in his book, Influence: Each principle has the ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic mindless compliance from people. That is a willingness to say ‘yes’ without thinking first.
The topic today is weapon of influence number two, consistency and commitment. I will start with an overview of what consistency and commitment bias is, then we will dive into a number of ridiculous research studies that demonstrate this behavior in the real world, and lastly we will look at some of the practical implications of how you can use this in real life.
So, what is consistency and commitment tendency? Here’s how Cialdini puts it: “It is quite simply our desire to be, and to appear, consistent with what we have already done. Once we make a choice, or take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.” He continues later in the book, “To understand why consistency is so powerful a motive we should recognize that in most circumstances consistency is valued and adaptive.” Remember this all comes back to the biological limits of the mind. The traits and characteristics that were super valuable from an evolutionary standpoint- that’s why he says it’s adaptive- can often go haywire when they collide with modern day society. Okay, so what? People like to be consistent. Why does that matter? Well, that simple bias toward staying consistent with what you have said, and more importantly with what you have done, because research shows that actions commit us more strongly at a subconscious level.
Here’s another quote from Cialdini about the importance of the commitment and consistency bias: “Psychologists have long recognized a desire in most people to be and look consistent within their words, beliefs, attitudes, and deeds. This tendency for consistency is fed from three sources. First, good personal consistency is highly valued by society. Second, aside from its effect on public image, generally consistent conduct provides a beneficial approach to daily life. Third, a consistent orientation affords a valuable shortcut through the complexity of modern existence. By being consistent with earlier decisions one reduces the need to process all the relevant information in future similar situations. Instead, one merely needs to recall the earlier decision, and to respond consistently with it. Within the realm of compliance, securing an initial commitment is the key. After making a commitment that is taking a stand or position, people are more willing to agree to requests that are in keeping with their prior commitment.”
Now let’s dig into the research. The first experiment that we’re going to talk about today is what I call ‘the blanket experiment’. This experiment was done in 1975. The control scenario: They had somebody sitting outside with their stuff, and they simply got up, walked away, and then they had a sort of staged theft where someone would come in, steal their bag, and run off. They did this 20 separate times and on four occasions somebody stepped in and did something to stop, or prevent, or say something: “Hey, what are you doing? Why are you taking that person’s bag?” whatever. Then they did the experiment a little bit differently with a slight twist, and the results were dramatically different. In this instance they have the same person come by, set down their bag, and then walk off, with the exception that they then asked somebody nearby to, “Watch my things”. That was the only difference. Three words, “Watch my things.” In that instance, 19 out of the 20 instances, that person who was asked became as they say in Influence, “virtual vigilantes running after and stopping the thief, demanding an explanation, often restraining the thief physically, or snatching the object back.” That’s pretty amazing when you think about that. Simply by committing a total stranger to a simple sentence with a three word question, or a three word statement: “Watch my things,” they went from 4 out of 20 people stopping them from taking the bag, to 19 out of 20 people stopping them, and becoming, as they say, “virtual vigilantes”. That’s what happens when you get people to commit to something very simple. They stay locked in and become extremely consistent. They want to stay consistent with their behavior. So, that little toehold, that little question, causes them to suddenly be chasing after a thief, which is something that could be incredibly dangerous, right?
This next experiment is also pretty fascinating, and the results are astounding. This took place in 1980 in Bloomington, Indiana. A social psychologist named Steven J. Sherman conducted this experiment. He had the control group, where he simply called people and asked them: “Hey, would you be willing to spend three hours volunteering for the American Cancer Society going door-to-door collecting money?” He then had the experiment group where they called people and asked them ahead of time, “As a hypothetical, would you be willing to spend three hours volunteering for the American Cancer Society?” Not wanting to be rude or uncharitable, people said, you know in thinking about, “Yeah, of cour- yeah, I’d be willing to do that. Yeah, hypothetically.” Then they had that group… they had them call again three days later and ask those people, “Hey, can you volunteer at such and such date, and can you actually go door-to-door and canvas for three hours for the American Cancer Society?” They had a 700% increase in volunteers in their success rate when they did that. That’s an astounding result if you think about it. A 700% increase simply by calling three days ahead of time and saying, “Hypothetically, would you be willing to volunteer?” and people said, “ Yeah, of course. I love volunteering. I love helping people fighting cancer. Yeah, I’d, in theory, I’d volunteer,” right? That little tiny subconscious commitment days later resulted in a 700% increase in volunteers. It’s fascinating.
Another experiment, which I call the ‘yard sign experiment’, was conducted in 1966 by Jonathan Friedman and Scott Frasier, and I’ll quote here from Cialdini’s Influence: “A researcher posing as a volunteer worker had gone door-to-door in a residential California neighborhood making a preposterous request of homeowners. The homeowners were asked to allow a public service billboard to be installed on their front lawns. To get an idea of the way this sign would look they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading, ‘Drive Carefully’.” In that instance only 17% of the people said yes to this request. This is where it gets really interesting. They conducted another study. They went door-to-door, same thing, asked people to display a ridiculously oversized drive carefully sign, but in this instance 76% of the people said yes. From 17% to 76%. What was the change? Two weeks before that a door-to-door canvasser had come by and asked those homeowners to display a small three inch sign on their driveway that said, “Be a safe driver.” That tiny little commitment two weeks beforehand resulted in 76% of the people being willing to display a gaudy, ridiculous, oversized billboard on their front yard that said, “Drive Carefully,” whereas only 17% of the people who were asked to do that without a prior commitment did it. That shows you how powerful it can be when you commit something, when you commit to something, even the smallest fashion. You kind of escalate into it, and subconsciously want to be consistent with what you’ve done, and so you get roped into it, or sucked into it, and all of a sudden you don’t even realize that it’s a completely subconscious process, and suddenly you’ve got a giant billboard on your front yard.
Interestingly, Friedman and Frasier conducted a similar experiment where they had someone go door-to-door and get people to sign a petition about state beautification. They then came by a couple weeks later and asked again, “Would you like to put a giant ‘Drive Carefully’ sign in your yard?” and of those people, nearly half of them said yes. So, it wasn’t quite the 76% jump. It was from 17% to 50%, or so, which is still a pretty astounding leap. That’s still almost a tripling of the compliance rate. What caused people to do that? They speculated that because people somehow now viewed themselves as civic-minded citizens, because they had signed a simple petition weeks earlier about state beautification, something totally unrelated, they now were willing to put that billboard in their driveway. As Cialdini says in Influence, “What the Friedman and Frasier findings tell us, then, is to be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests because that agreement can influence our self-concepts,” and that’s why this is such an insidious tendency. In this instance, whether it’s simply agreeing to a hypothetical, “Hey, yeah I’d be willing to volunteer my time, in theory,” or signing a petition, “Yeah, I’m in favor of state beautification,” or putting a tiny little sign in your yard, again and again these simple, innocuous commitments can result in an escalation that you get sort of drawn in, and sucked in, and before you know it you’re doing all kinds of stuff because you’ve built up this image in your mind that you’re trying subconsciously to stay consistent to, and that’s why it’s such a powerful cognitive bias.
So, those are a couple examples of the research and how different research studies have demonstrated this tendency, and it’s been demonstrated many more times than that, but those are just three examples that I thought you would find really interesting. Now, I want to talk about: What are some of the practical implications of the consistency and the commitment bias? Here’s a great quote from Cialdini that sums it up very nicely: “It appears that the commitments most affective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior are those that are active, public, and effortful.” So, let’s dig into a couple of these practical implications. The first is the concept of the foot in the door technique, and that’s what they demonstrated with the yard sign experiments, is that a lot of times if you can land, or if you can get, just this innocuous initial concession you can kind of build on that, and suddenly get people to agree to things that internally to them seem very consistent with their self-image, but started with this tiny little commitment. An example of that in negotiations is to give somebody a reputation to live up to. Here’s a quote from Influence talking about Anwar Sadat: “One of the best at it was former President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. Before international negotiations began, Sadat would assure his bargaining opponents that they, and the citizens of their country, were widely known for their cooperativeness and fairness. With this kind of flattery he would not only create positive feelings, but he also connected his opponent’s identities to a course of action that served his goals.” Remember public commitments are more powerful. That’s why if you put something in your yard, or you state publicly a position, it’s really hard to back down from that. It’s really hard to change course from that, and the research shows again and again that the more publicly committed to something you are, the more it’s kind of engrained in your identity. Hard one conclusions are the most valued, as Cialdini says, and he actually uses the example in the book Influence of fraternity hazing, right? The more you suffer and toil away for a conclusion, or a piece of your identity, the more you want to stay committed to that. The more it means something to you, and the harder it is to see that blind spot in your mind, to see that bias that’s shading your vision, or your actions.
Another really important take away is that the most effective commitments are focused internally, not externally. There’s an experiment that is fascinating, and a little, in some ways, shows how twisted psychologists can be, but I call it the ‘toy robot experiment’, and in this experiment they had 22 kids come and visit this psychologist, and they would leave the kids alone in a room with a number of different toys. In the first example the psychologist said to the child, before they left them alone and then went around to watch them through a one way mirror, “It is wrong to play with the robot. If you play with the robot, I’ll be very angry and will have to do something about it.” So, they had five or six toys in there. All of them were pretty lame, except the robot was like, totally awesome, so the kids had this natural incentive to go play with the robot, or it was like, a rubber duck and a bunch of other junk toys, but in that survey, only 1 out of the 22 children played with the robot.
They did another study where the psychologist simply said, “It is wrong to play with the robot.” That’s it, they didn’t have any threat. They didn’t say they were going to be angry, whatever. In that research, in that study, again, 1 out of the 22 children played with the robot initially, but this is where it gets really fascinating. In the scenario where they threatened the students, where they had this external punishment: “I’m going to be angry and do something about it,” six weeks later they had the kids come back, put them in the same room, didn’t say anything to them, and let them play with whatever. The kids who had been threatened, 77% of those children, went back and played with the robot when they were in the room six weeks later. That’s because the external threat didn’t matter as much then. They weren’t as committed to it. They didn’t feel the need to stay as consistent with it. The kids who had been told only, “It is wrong to play with the robot,” no threat, more of an internal motivation, something they internalized, only 33% of those children played with the robot. So, less than half of the kids played with the robot in that scenario, and that demonstrates how much more powerful a commitment is if it’s internalized. Whether somebody’s trying to get you to internalize a commitment, or you can get someone to internalize a commitment, it shows you that to be super powerful, if these commitments are internalized, they’re- in this instance- more than doubly effective.
Another practical application is what’s called the ‘low ball technique’. That’s what Cialdini refers to it as, and I’ll read this quote from Influence, “When calling one sample of students, we immediately informed them of the 7 AM starting time. Only 27% were willing to participate.” He’s talking here about an activity that they wanted the students to participate in. The quote continues: “However, when calling a second sample of students we threw a low ball. We first asked if they wanted to participate in a study of thinking process, and after they responded, 56% of them positively; we mentioned the 7 AM start time and gave them a chance to change their minds. None of them did. What’s more, in keeping with their commitment to participate, 95% of the low balled students came to the psychology building at 7 AM, as promised.” So, that’s kind of a strategy where you get somebody to commit to something and then you layer in the bad news. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that at one time or another in our life, where someone had done that to us. That’s an example of the commitment and consistency tendency, right? If people knew off the bat that it was a 7 AM start time, only 24% of them were willing to participate, but as soon as they committed, and 56% of them committed on the front end; then after they had that commitment, and were psychologically anchored into that outcome, then when the bad news starts rolling in, they were okay and they accepted it, and they stuck with it. So, just flipping the wording, flipping that situation around, which seems so trivial, and something that you would never think about, can more than double the impact of what you’re saying or what you’re doing.
One of the other really fascinating takeaways that Cialdini talks about, and why commitment is such an insidious weapon of influence, is because commitment, in many cases, can be self-perpetuating. What he says is that commitments build their own legs. He likens it to a table analogy, and basically the table starts out with sort of a single leg, which is the commitment that you agree to, or you get someone to agree to, but then it starts building all of these other justifications around it, and people actually end up building their own subconscious justifications for that commitment that have nothing to do with what they initially committed to. The yard sign example is a perfect example that demonstrates that. These people started to think of themselves as an advocate for safe driving, or a civic minded citizen, or whatever, and all of these other justifications start being built, where the original justification doesn’t even matter and can be taken away, and people will still behave that way. That finding is found again and again in the research that you can actually literally take away the justification that people had for changing their behavior, or committing to a certain course of action, and in many cases their commitment stays just as strong, or sometimes even gets stronger once they’ve been committed down that path.
So, how do you defend against the commitment and consistency tendency? Here’s how Cialdini handles it: “I listen to my stomach these days, and I have discovered a way to handle people who try to use the consistency principle on me. I just tell them exactly what they are doing. This tactic has become the perfect counterattack for me. When my stomach tells me I would be a sucker to comply with the request, merely because doing so would be consistent with some prior commitment I was tricked into, I relay that message to the requester. I don’t try to deny the importance of consistency, I just point out the absurdity of foolish consistency. Whether in response the requester shrinks away guilty, or retreats in bewilderment, I am content. I have won and an exploiter has lost.” That shows us how important consistency and commitment tendency is, and how it can have huge results in your life, and how these little, simple commitments, something you would of never thought of or never even thought about, can actually change your self-image and your self-perception, and become these little seeds that get planted in your mind, and almost become self-perpetuating. Especially, think about the toy robot example, if it changes your identity, and changes your self-image or self-perception, it can shift the future direction of your behavior even if you completely forget about the original source of the commitment.
That’s it for today’s episode.