Commitment and Consistency Bias

"It is, quite simply, 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. Those pressure will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision." - Cialdini

Robert Cialdini does a great job discussing this tendency in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. What we are largely unaware of, and what makes this tendency so powerful, is that the actions that we have taken in the past are subconsciously affecting our self-image, and it is in defense of this self-image that can influence our decision making. As Charlie Munger states, "wherever you turn, this consistency and commitment tendency is affecting you. In other words, what you think may change what you do, but perhaps even more important, what you do will change what you think." Compliance professionals, an umbrella term for many types of professionals in business to persuade others to take action, use this tendency against us frequently, and we need to be aware of the tendency to help guard ourselves against manipulation.

Why the Principle is Powerful

There are a couple of reasons why consistency is an automatic and compelling force.

  1. The automation of consistency is a way to live on autopilot, and avoid the labor of processioning all of the information constantly bombarding us. "It is not hard to understand, then, why automatic consistency is a difficult reaction to curb. It offers us a way to evade the rigors of continuing thought (Cialdini)."

  2. Although the effort of processing information can be difficult, sometimes it is the fear of what we will discover or realize in that process of thinking that we are trying to avoid. "There are certain disturbing things we simply would rather not realize. Because it is a preprogrammed and mindless method of responding, automatic consistency can supply a safe hiding place from those troubling realizations (Cialdini)." An example of this tendency to avoid disturbing truths might be involved in a relationship in which one or both individuals choose to ignore the signs of trouble rather than face them and come to the uncomfortable realization that the relationship is not working.

How does commitment work

"What produces the click that activates the whirr of the powerful consistency tape? Social psychologists think they know the answer: 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 that stand (Cialdini)."

According to Cialdini, there are certain conditions that must be present in a commitment to really change our self-image and set us up for a consistency bias. If some or all of these conditions are absent, we may have made a choice, but it does not necessarily change the way we think. The conditions that empower the commitment tendency are:

  • Action: Nothing influences our self-image quite like our own behavior. There must be an action to heavily influence us. Subjects of an experiment who were asked to guess the number of lines on a page were asked to either 1. keep their prediction in their head 2. write it down and then delete it (so no one would ever see) or 3. write it down and hand it to the experimenter. Those who had written their guess down privately were the least likely to change their answer when presented with more information that should have impacted their guess. Those who had given their initial guess to the examiner were the most stubborn of all. The more public the action the more powerful the effect will be. "Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure - a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us (Cialdini)."

  • Public Eye: The more public our commitments are, the more powerful the consistency tendency. For example, if you want to quit smoking, just write a letter to every single person who is important in your life and give it to them with the message "I will never smoke another cigarette for the rest of my life." Your chance of picking up another cigarette will be diminished as a result.

  • Effort: "The more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it (Cialdini)." Hazing rituals in college environments and rites of passage in tribal communities provide good case studies for this because of the enormous obstacles that must be overcome for individuals to be considered part of the group. In a study that looked at several tribal communities, it was found that the ones with the most difficult rites of passages also experienced the greatest commitment among its members to the group.

  • Inner Choice: "Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won't get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won't feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment (Cialdini)." This is why the Chinese offered small prizes for their essay competitions. It's why fraternities don't allow community service as part of the hazing ritual: "a man who suffered through an arduous hazing could not be given the chance to believe he did so for charitable purposes (Cialdini)." Or why homeowners took energy saving more seriously once the prospect of reward was taken away. This may be at the heart of the consistency principle. There is a significant tendency for us to justify to ourselves why we made a previous choice. The Benjamin Franklin effect is powerful for this reason; after asking for a favor from one of his adversaries, Franklin found as a result that he had made a friend. No doubt the adversary was forced to justify to himself why he would be willing to do a favor for Franklin, and probably concluded that Franklin must not be such a bad guy after all.

How Does Consistency Work

Once we have made a commitment, no matter how small, it can affect our self-image, and we then will act in a way consistent with that self-image.

  • Example: A man who agrees to sign a petition for cleaner water in his community will be more willing to agree to putting a billboard that encourages safe driving in his front lawn a month later. Why? When he made the commitment initially to sign the petition, he influenced his self-image so that he saw himself as the type of person who cares about social issues, and gets involved, and takes action. The billboard is consistent with this self-image.

  • Example: Homeowners that agreed to reduce their energy consumption over a period of time, in exchange for public recognition, continued to reduce their energy consumption even after it was revealed that there would be no public recognition. Why? Although the initial commitment to reduce energy consumption was influenced by a reward, it may have set into motion a series of habits and decisions that caused the person to adjust their self-image as one who is energy-conscious. With the reward removed as a reason for their behavior, their energy consumption declines even more, as they take greater responsibility. They no longer believe that they are doing something in exchange for a reward, but they must be doing it because it's something they truly value. Consistency enforces the identity and vice versa, the two feedback on each other.

  • Example: In the past, toy companies have been known to heavily advertise a product before Christmas, but then limit the number of products they send to retailers. The result is that the toy goes out of stock before most customers can purchase it. A month or two later, the toy company will advertise the toy on TV again, and now parents find themselves back at the store to purchase it. Why? When the advertisement ran initially, children asked their parents to get the toy for Christmas. The parents promised they would. When they get to the store and find that it's sold out, they buy their child something else of equal value. A month later, the child sees the advertisement once again, and this time when he begs his parents for it, he can say "you promised to get it for me for Christmas!" Now the parents are obligated to buy the toy even though they just bought their child a present for Christmas, because they are acting consistent with the image of someone who keeps their word and initial commitments.

  • Example: During the Korean War, American soldiers who were captured were influenced by the Chinese into softening their patriotic views and animosity towards the Chinese government through a series of escalating commitments in which the soldiers were instructed to write essays or statements about each government. Cialdini highlights this example: "A man who had just agreed with his Chinese interrogator that the United States is not perfect might then be asked to indicate some of the ways in which he thought his was the case. Once he had so explained himself, he might be asked to make a list of these 'problems with America' and to sign his name to it. Later he might be asked to read his list in a discussion group with other prisoners. 'After all, it's what you really believe, isn't it?' Still later he might be asked to write an essay expanding on his list and discussing these problems in greater detail." These essays might be displayed in public or on the radio, and the man would suddenly "find himself a 'collaborator,' having given aid to the enemy. Aware that he had written the essay without any strong threats or coercion, many times a man would change his image of himself to be consistent with the deed and with the new 'collaborator' label."

The foot-in-the-door sales technique of starting with a small request and then following it up with larger requests derives its power from this principle. By committing to a small order from a particular salesman, an individual will have the tendency to agree to larger orders later, as this is consistent with the "customer" self-image that he or she may be forming in the mind as a result of the initial commitment.

"You can use small commitments to manipulate a person's self-image; you can use them to turn citizens into 'public servants,' prospects into 'customers,' prisoners into 'collaborators.' And once you've got a man's self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this view of himself." - Cialdini

Avoiding the Commitment and Consistency Bias

Being aware of the bias will help us develop awareness of the subconscious tendency, and help us spot when our auto-pilot response is shaping our self-image from our previous actions. One of the dangers we face when it comes to manipulation through this tendency is from compliance professionals. If we have an internal awareness of the tendency, and we can spot when it is being exploited for manipulation, the best response is to simply call the manipulator out on it. The tendency will lose its power, and we will be able to evaluate the decision based on the objective merits.


Resources:

Charlie Munger on the Psychology of Human Misjudgement

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini