Commitment and Consistency (Weapons of Influence, part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of the series on Weapons of Influence, based on Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, Part 1 discussed the principle of reciprocation.

Commitment and Consistency

We like to be consistent and honor our commitments. As with reciprocity, under normal social circumstances, these are good traits, but they can be used against us. The famous experiment in this vein was the one where a research accomplice goes to the beach, lays down a blanket and puts out some personal items, including a radio. The accomplice then goes away. A few minutes later, another accomplice comes up and “steals” the radio. The experiment varies between two conditions. In one condition, the original accomplice gets up and leaves without saying anything. In the other condition, that orginal person specifically asks someone to watch his or her stuff. In the first case, the second accomplice was stopped and challenged only four times out of twenty. In the second condition, the “thief” was stopped and challenged nineteen out of twenty times. So the challenge rate went from 20% to 95% (p. 59). In other words, people had an overwhelming desire to be consistent with their prior commitment.

These techniques can be remarkably subtle. For example, when a telemarketer calls it makes a huge difference whether that person says “How are you feeling tonight?” and gets an answer or says “I hope you’re feeling well tonight”. The difference is that in the first case, the target has committed publicly to having a good evening (because the response is typically Fine, thanks”). Having publicly committed to doing “fine”, it is very hard for the target to shirk on giving money to the earthquake victims in wherever who are so unfine and so in need of help. In the case where the caller simply says “I hope you’re feeling well this evening” no such commitment was extracted and the response rate was less than half (15 vs 33 percent) what it was when the caller asks a question.

Or how about this one. Toy companies advertise items in the runup to Christmas that they have no intention of stocking in sufficient numbers to meet demand. The unwitting parent commits to the present for the pleading child. Since the gift isn’t available, dad buys something of equivalent value for Christmas. But two months later, well there’s that item miraculously on sale. Dad goes and buys it because he feels a commitment to his kid. The toy companies know this and use this technique to prop up sales in January and February.

Companies use essay contests to make you feel good about them. Something as simple as copying out a message in your own handwriting can make you want to follow through on all the nice things you’ve said about that company. Public utilities have gotten people to save lots of energy simply by getting people to commit to saving energy.

It turns out that internalizing the commitment is key. When utilities hold a contest and say that those who save a certain amount of energy will be recognized, people do cut down on energy usage. But when they then call to renege and say the contest is cancelled, it turns out that energy usage falls even further. It seems that this is because people are actually less motivated when they feel they’re doing it for external reasons, and more motivated when they feel they are doing it for themselves. Being the kind of person who likes to be energy efficient is more powerful than being the kind of person who will reduce electricity usage in order to save $5.

There’s one further usage of the commitment and consistency principle that is worth noting. I’ve been taken in by subtler forms of this on many occasions. It’s called the lowball. Essentially, your sleazy used car salesman offers you a price that he knows he can’t really honor. You agree. When it comes time to sign the final papers, the accounting department finds an arithematic “error” or the sales manager notes an “error” in the trade-in value and the salesman sheepishly fesses up to his “mistake”. But here’s the thing, you’ve committed to buying the car, and at this point it’s psychologically hard to turn that around, and you buy it anyway, rather than going down the street to where they have it for real at the initial price the salesman offered. The subtler version that takes me in is deciding to buy something that’s on sale. But then I drag my feet and miss the sale. Two months later, I miraculously own it anyway.

How to Say No. When we get caught in these situations, we typically know in our gut that we’ve been had. If the spidey sense starts tingling, ask yourself a simple question: “Knowing what I know now, would I make the same decision as if I had not committed myself?” So in other words, ask yourself, “If I had not shaken the hand of the sleazy used car salesman on the deal, would I buy the car at this price?” “If I had never seen that Marmot Precip jacket on sale, would I still be buying it today at full price?” The key here is to focus in on how you feel in the microsecond after you pose the question, before the rationalizations kick in. That is when you’re most honest with yourself or, as Cialdini says (p. 110): “Accumulating psychological evidence indicates that we experience our feelings toward something a split second before we can intellectualize it.”

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