It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.
—LEONARDO DA VINCI
A STUDY DONE BY A PAIR OF CANADIAN PSYCHOLOGISTS UNCOVERED something fascinating about people at the racetrack: Just after placing a bet, they are much more confident of their horse’s chances of winning than they are immediately before laying down that bet.25 Of course, nothing about the horse’s chances actually shifts; it’s the same horse, on the same track, in the same field; but in the minds of those bettors, its prospects improve significantly once that ticket is purchased. Although a bit puzzling at first glance, the reason for the dramatic change has to do with a common weapon of social influence. Like the other weapons of influence, this one lies deep within us, directing our actions with quiet power. 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 pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.
Take the bettors in the racetrack experiment. Thirty seconds before putting down their money, they had been tentative and uncertain; thirty seconds after the deed, they were significantly more optimistic and self-assured. The act of making a final decision—in this case, of buying a ticket—had been the critical factor. Once a stand had been taken, the need for consistency pressured these people to bring what they felt and believed into line with what they had already done. They simply convinced themselves that they had made the right choice and, no doubt, felt better about it all.
Before we see such self-delusion as unique to racetrack habitués, we should examine the story of my neighbor Sara and her live-in boyfriend, Tim. They met at a hospital where he worked as an X-ray technician and she as a nutritionist. They dated for a while, even after Tim lost his job, and eventually they moved in together. Things were never perfect for Sara: She wanted Tim to marry her and to stop his heavy drinking; Tim resisted both ideas. After an especially difficult period of conflict, Sara broke off the relationship, and Tim moved out. At the same time, an old boyfriend of Sara’s returned to town after years away and called her. They started seeing each other socially and quickly became serious enough to plan a wedding. They had gone so far as to set a date and issue invitations when Tim called. He had repented and wanted to move back in. When Sara told him her marriage plans, he begged her to change her mind; he wanted to be together with her as before. But Sara refused, saying she didn’t want to live like that again. Tim even offered to marry her, but she still said she preferred the other boyfriend. Finally, Tim volunteered to quit drinking if she would only relent. Feeling that under those conditions Tim had the edge, Sara decided to break her engagement, cancel the wedding, retract the invitations, and let Tim move back in with her.
Within a month, Tim informed Sara that he didn’t think he needed to stop his drinking after all; a month later, he had decided that they should “wait and see” before getting married. Two years have since passed; Tim and Sara continue to live together exactly as before. He still drinks, there are still no marriage plans, yet Sara is more devoted to Tim than she ever was. She says that being forced to choose taught her that Tim really is number one in her heart. So, after choosing Tim over her other boyfriend, Sara became happier with him, even though the conditions under which she had made her choice have never been fulfilled. Obviously, horse-race bettors are not alone in their willingness to believe in the correctness of a difficult choice, once made. Indeed, we all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.
Psychologists have long understood the power of the consistency principle to direct human action. Prominent theorists such as Leon Festinger, Fritz Hieder, and Theodore Newcomb have viewed the desire for consistency as a central motivator of our behavior. But is this tendency to be consistent really strong enough to compel us to do what we ordinarily would not want to do? There is no question about it. The drive to be (and look) consistent constitutes a highly potent weapon of social influence, often causing us to act in ways that are clearly contrary to our own best interests.
Take, as proof, what happened when psychologist Thomas Moriarty staged thefts on a New York City beach to see if onlookers would risk personal harm to halt the crime. In the study, a research accomplice would put a beach blanket down five feet from the blanket of a randomly chosen individual—the experimental subject. After a couple of minutes on the blanket spent relaxing and listening to music from a portable radio, the accomplice would stand up and leave the blanket to stroll down the beach. A few minutes later, a second researcher, pretending to be a thief, would approach, grab the radio, and try to hurry away with it. As you might guess, under normal conditions, subjects were very reluctant to put themselves in harm’s way by challenging the thief—only four people did so in the twenty times, that the theft was staged. But when the same procedure was tried another twenty times, with a slight twist, the results were drastically different. In these incidents, before taking his stroll, the accomplice would simply ask the subject to please “watch my things,” which each of them agreed to do. Now, propelled by the rule for consistency, nineteen of the twenty subjects became virtual vigilantes, running after and stopping the thief, demanding an explanation, and often restraining the thief physically or snatching the radio away.
To understand why consistency is so powerful a motive, it is important to recognize that in most circumstances consistency is valued and adaptive. Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty. A quote attributed to the great British chemist Michael Faraday suggests the extent to which being consistent is approved—sometimes more than being right. When asked after a lecture if he meant to imply that a hated academic rival was always wrong, Faraday glowered at the questioner and replied, “He’s not that consistent.”
Certainly, then, good personal consistency is highly valued in our culture. And well it should be. It provides us with a reasonable and gainful orientation to the world. Most of the time we will be better off if our approach to things is well laced with consistency. Without it our lives would be difficult, erratic, and disjointed.
But because it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we easily fall into the habit of being automatically so, even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be. When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous. Nonetheless, even blind consistency has its attractions.
First, like most other forms of automatic responding, it offers a shortcut through the density of modern life. Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore. We don’t have to sift through the blizzard of information we encounter every day to identify relevant facts; we don’t have to expend the mental energy to weigh the pros and cons; we don’t have to make any further tough decisions. Instead, all we have to do when confronted with the issue is to turn on our consistency tape, whirr, and we know just what to believe, say, or do. We need only believe, say, or do whatever is consistent with our earlier decision.
The allure of such a luxury is not to be minimized. It allows us a convenient, relatively effortless, and efficient method for dealing with complex daily environments that make severe demands on our mental energies and capacities. 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. And as Sir Joshua Reynolds noted, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” With our consistency tapes operating, then, we can go about our business happily excused from the toil of having to think too much.
There is a second, more perverse attraction of mechanical consistency as well. Sometimes it is not the effort of hard, cognitive work that makes us shirk thoughtful activity, but the harsh consequences of that activity. Sometimes it is the cursedly clear and unwelcome set of answers provided by straight thinking that makes us mental slackers. 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. Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.
One night at an introductory lecture given by the transcendental meditation (TM) program, I witnessed a nice illustration of how people will hide inside the walls of consistency to protect themselves from the troublesome consequences of thought. The lecture itself was presided over by two earnest young men and was designed to recruit new members into the program. The program claimed it could teach a unique brand of meditation that would allow us to achieve all manner of desirable things, ranging from simple inner peace to the more spectacular abilities to fly and pass through walls at the program’s advanced (and more expensive) stages.
I had decided to attend the meeting to observe the kind of compliance tactics used in recruitment lectures of this sort and had brought along an interested friend, a university professor whose areas of specialization were statistics and symbolic logic. As the meeting progressed and the lecturers explained the theory behind TM, I noticed my logician friend becoming increasingly restless. Looking more and more pained and shifting about constantly in his seat, he was finally unable to resist. When the leaders called for questions at the completion of the lecture, he raised his hand and gently but surely demolished the presentation we had just heard. In less than two minutes, he pointed out precisely where and why the lecturers’ complex argument was contradictory, illogical, and unsupportable. The effect on the discussion leaders was devastating. After a confused silence, each attempted a weak reply only to halt midway to confer with his partner and finally to admit that my colleague’s points were good ones “requiring further study.”
More interesting to me, though, was the effect upon the rest of the audience. At the end of the question period, the two recruiters were faced with a crush of audience members submitting their seventy-five-dollar down payments for admission to the TM program. Nudging, shrugging, and chuckling to one another as they took in the payments, the recruiters betrayed signs of giddy bewilderment. After what appeared to have been an embarrassingly clear collapse of their presentation, the meeting had somehow turned into a great success, generating mystifyingly high levels of compliance from the audience. Although more than a bit puzzled, I chalked up the audience response to a failure to understand the logic of my colleague’s arguments. As it turned out, however, just the reverse was the case.
Outside the lecture room after the meeting, we were approached by three members of the audience, each of whom had given a down payment immediately after the lecture. They wanted to know why we had come to the session. We explained, and we asked the same question of them. One was an aspiring actor who wanted desperately to succeed at his craft and had come to the meeting to learn if TM would allow him to achieve the necessary self-control to master the art; the recruiters had assured him that it would. The second described herself as a severe insomniac who had hopes that TM would provide her with a way to relax and fall asleep easily at night. The third served as unofficial spokesman. He also had a sleep-related problem. He was failing college because there didn’t seem to be enough time to study. He had come to the meeting to find out if TM could help by training him to need fewer hours of sleep each night; the additional time could then be used for study. It is interesting to note that the recruiters informed him as well as the insomniac that Transcendental Meditation techniques could solve their respective, though opposite, problems.
Still thinking that the three must have signed up because they hadn’t understood the points made by my logician friend, I began to question them about aspects of his argument. To my surprise, I found that they had understood his comments quite well; in fact, all too well. It was precisely the cogency of his argument that drove them to sign up for the program on the spot. The spokesman put it best: “Well, I wasn’t going to put down any money tonight because I’m really quite broke right now; I was going to wait until the next meeting. But when your buddy started talking, I knew I’d better give them my money now, or I’d go home and start thinking about what he said and never sign up.”
All at once, things began to make sense. These were people with real problems; and they were somewhat desperately searching for a way to solve those problems. They were seekers who, if our discussion leaders were to be believed, had found a potential solution in TM. Driven by their needs, they very much wanted to believe that TM was their answer.
Now, in the form of my colleague, intrudes the voice of reason, showing the theory underlying their newfound solution to be unsound. Panic! Something must be done at once before logic takes its toll and leaves them without hope again. Quickly, quickly, walls against reason are needed; and it doesn’t matter that the fortress to be erected is a foolish one. “Quick, a hiding place from thought! Here, take this money. Whew, safe in the nick of time. No need to think about the issues any longer. The decision has been made, and from now on the consistency tape can be played whenever necessary: ‘TM? Certainly I think it will help me; certainly I expect to continue; certainly I believe in TM. I already put my money down for it, didn’t I?’ Ah, the comforts of mindless consistency. I’ll just rest right here for a while. It’s so much nicer than the worry and strain of that hard, hard search.”
If, as it appears, automatic consistency functions as a shield against thought, it should not be surprising that such consistency can also be exploited by those who would prefer that we not think too much in response to their requests for our compliance. For the exploiters, whose interest will be served by an unthinking, mechanical reaction to their requests, our tendency for automatic consistency is a gold mine. So clever are they at arranging to have us play our consistency tapes when it profits them that we seldom realize we have been taken. In fine jujitsu fashion, they structure their interactions with us so that our own need to be consistent will lead directly to their benefit.
Certain large toy manufacturers use just such an approach to reduce a problem caused by seasonal buying patterns. Of course, the boom time for toy sales occurs before and during the Christmas holiday season. The toy companies make fat profits during this period. Their problem is that toy sales then go into a terrible slump for the next couple of months. Their customers have already spent the full amount in their toy budgets and are stiffly resistant to their children’s pleas for more. Even those children whose birthdays fall soon after the holidays receive fewer toys because of the recent Christmas spree.
So the toy manufacturers are faced with a dilemma: how to keep sales high during the peak season and, at the same time, retain a healthy demand for toys in the immediately following months. Their difficulty certainly doesn’t lie in convincing our naturally insatiable offspring to want a continuous flow of new amusements. A series of flashy television commercials placed among the Saturday morning cartoon shows will produce the usual amounts of begging, whining, and wheedling no matter when it appears during the year. No, the problem is not in motivating kids to want more toys after Christmas.
The problem is in motivating postholiday spent-out parents to reach down for the price of yet another plaything for their already toy-glutted children. What could the toy companies possibly do to produce that unlikely behavior? Some have tried a greatly increased advertising campaign, others have reduced prices during the slack period, but neither of those standard sales devices has proved successful. Not only are both tactics costly, but both have also been ineffective in increasing sales to desired levels. Parents are simply not in a toy-buying mood, and the influences of advertising or reduced expense are not enough to shake that stony resistance.
Certain large toy manufacturers, however, think they have found a solution. It’s an ingenious one, involving no more than a normal advertising expense and an understanding of the powerful pull of the need for consistency. My first hint of how the toy companies’ strategy worked came after I fell for it and then, in true patsy form, fell for it again.
It was January, and I was in the town’s largest toy store. After purchasing all too many gifts there for my son a month before, I had sworn not to enter that place or any like it for a long, long time. Yet there I was, not only in the diabolic place but also in the process of buying my son another expensive toy—a big, electric road-race set. In front of the road-race display, I happened to meet a former neighbor who was buying his son the same toy. The odd thing was that we almost never saw each other anymore. In fact, the last time was a year earlier in that same store where we were both buying our sons an expensive post-Christmas gift—that time a robot that walked, talked, and laid waste. We laughed about our strange pattern of seeing each other only once a year at the same time, in the same place, while doing the same thing. Later that day, I mentioned the coincidence to a friend who, it turned out, had once worked in the toy business.
“No coincidence,” he said knowingly.
“What do you mean, ‘No coincidence’?”
“Look,” he said, “let me ask you a couple of questions about the road-race set you bought this year. First, did you promise your son that he’d get one for Christmas?”
“Well, yes, I did. Christopher had seen a bunch of ads for them on the Saturday morning cartoon shows and said that was what he wanted for Christmas. I saw a couple of the ads myself and it looked like fun, so I said okay.”
“Strike one,” he announced. “Now for my second question. When you went to buy one, did you find all the stores sold out?”
“That’s right, I did! The stores said they’d ordered some but didn’t know when they’d get any more in. So I had to buy Christopher some other toys to make up for the road-race set. But how did you know?”
“Strike two,” he said. “Just let me ask one more question. Didn’t this same sort of thing happen the year before with the robot toy?”
“Wait a minute…you’re right. That’s just what happened. This is incredible. How did you know?”
“No psychic powers; I just happen to know how several of the big toy companies jack up their January and February sales. They start prior to Christmas with attractive TV ads for certain special toys. The kids, naturally, want what they see and extract Christmas promises for these items from their parents. Now here’s where the genius of the companies’ plan comes in: They undersupply the stores with the toys they’ve gotten the parents to promise. Most parents find those things sold out and are forced to substitute other toys of equal value. The toy manufacturers, of course, make a point of supplying the stores with plenty of these substitutes. Then, after Christmas, the companies start running the ads again for the other, special toys. That juices up the kids to want those toys more than ever. They go running to their parents whining, ‘You promised, you promised,’ and the adults go trudging off to the store to live up dutifully to their words.”
“Where,” I said, beginning to seethe now, “they meet other parents they haven’t seen for a year, falling for the same trick, right?”
“Right. Uh, where are you going?”
“I’m going to take that road-race set right back to the store.” I was so angry I was nearly shouting.
“Wait. Think for a minute first. Why did you buy it this morning?”
“Because I didn’t want to let Christopher down and because I wanted to teach him that promises are to be lived up to.”
“Well, has any of that changed? Look, if you take his toy away now, he won’t understand why. He’ll just know that his father broke a promise to him. Is that what you want?”
“No,” I said, sighing, “I guess not. So, you’re telling me that they doubled their profit on me for the past two years, and I never even knew it; and now that I do, I’m still trapped—by my own words. So, what you’re really telling me is, ‘Strike three.’”
He nodded, “And you’re out.”
COMMITMENT IS THE KEY
Once we realize that the power of consistency is formidable in directing human action, an important practical question immediately arises: How is that force engaged? 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 the stand.
As we’ve already seen, social psychologists are not the only ones who understand the connection between commitment and consistency. Commitment strategies are aimed at us by compliance professionals of nearly every sort. Each of the strategies is intended to get us to take some action or make some statement that will trap us into later compliance through consistency pressures. Procedures designed to create commitment take various forms. Some are fairly straightforward; others are among the most subtle compliance tactics we will encounter.
For instance, suppose you wanted to increase the number of people in your area who would agree to go door-to-door collecting donations for your favorite charity. You would be wise to study the approach taken by social psychologist Steven J. Sherman. He simply called a sample of Bloomington, Indiana, residents as part of a survey he was taking and asked them to predict what they would say if asked to spend three hours collecting money for the American Cancer Society. Of course, not wanting to seem uncharitable to the survey taker or to themselves, many of these people said that they would volunteer. The consequence of this sly commitment procedure was a 700 percent increase in volunteers when, a few days later, a representative of the American Cancer Society did call and ask for neighborhood canvassers. Using the same strategy, but this time asking Columbus, Ohio, residents to predict whether they would vote on Election Day, a team of researchers led by Anthony Greenwald were able to increase significantly the turnout in a U.S. presidential election among those called.
Perhaps an even more crafty commitment technique has been developed recently by telephone solicitors for charity. Have you noticed that callers asking you to contribute to some cause or another these days seem to begin things by inquiring about your current health and well-being? “Hello Mr./Ms. Targetperson,” they say. “How are you feeling this evening?” Or, “How are you doing today?” The caller’s intent with this sort of introduction is not merely to seem friendly and caring. It is to get you to respond—as you normally do to such polite, superficial inquiries—with a polite, superficial comment of your own: “Just fine” or “Real good” or “I’m doing great, thanks.” Once you have publicly stated that all is well, it becomes much easier for the solicitor to corner you into aiding those for whom all is not well: “I’m glad to hear that, because I’m calling to ask if you’d be willing to make a donation to help out the unfortunate victims of…”
The theory behind this tactic is that people who have just asserted that they are doing/feeling fine—even as a routine part of a sociable exchange—will consequently find it awkward to appear stingy in the context of their own admittedly favored circumstances. If all this sounds a bit farfetched, consider the findings of consumer researcher Daniel Howard, who put the theory to test. Dallas, Texas, residents were called on the phone and asked if they would agree to allow a representative of the Hunger Relief Committee to come to their homes to sell them cookies, the proceeds from which would be used to supply meals for the needy. When tried alone, that request (labeled the “standard solicitation approach”) produced only 18 percent agreement. However, if the caller initially asked, “How are you feeling this evening?” and waited for a reply before proceeding to the standard approach, several noteworthy things happened. First, of the 120 individuals called, most (108) gave the customary favorable reply (“Good,” “Fine,” “Real well,” etc.). Second, 32 percent of the people who got the “How are you feeling tonight” question agreed to receive the cookie seller at their homes, nearly twice the success rate of the standard solicitation approach. Third, true to the consistency principle, almost everyone who agreed to such a visit did, in fact, make a cookie purchase when contacted at home (89 percent).
To make sure that this tactic doesn’t generate its successes simply because a solicitor who uses it seems more concerned and courteous than one who doesn’t use it, Howard conducted another study. This time callers began either with the question “How are you feeling this evening?” (and waited for a response before proceeding) or with the statement “I hope you are feeling well this evening” and then proceeded to the standard solicitation approach. Despite the fact that the caller started each type of interaction with a warm and friendly comment, the “How are you feeling” technique was, by far, superior to its rival (33 percent vs. 15 percent compliance), because it alone drew an exploitable public commitment from its targets. Note that the commitment was able to get twice as much compliance from those targets even though at the time it occurred it must have seemed to them an altogether inconsequential reply to an altogether superficial question—yet another fine example of social jujitsu at work.
The question of what makes a commitment effective has a number of answers. A variety of factors affect the ability of a commitment to constrain our future behavior. One large-scale program designed to produce compliance illustrates nicely how several of the factors work. The remarkable thing about this program is that it was systematically employing these factors decades ago, well before scientific research had identified them.
During the Korean War, many captured American soldiers found themselves in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps run by the Chinese Communists. It became clear early in the conflict that the Chinese treated captives quite differently than did their allies, the North Koreans, who favored savagery and harsh punishment to gain compliance. Specifically avoiding the appearance of brutality, the Red Chinese engaged in what they termed their “lenient policy,” which was in reality a concerted and sophisticated psychological assault on their captives. After the war, American psychologists questioned the returning prisoners intensively to determine what had occurred. The intensive psychological investigation took place, in part, because of the unsettling success of some aspects of the Chinese program. For example, the Chinese were very effective in getting Americans to inform on one another, in striking contrast to the behavior of American POWs in World War II. For this reason, among others, escape plans were quickly uncovered and the escape attempts themselves almost always unsuccessful. “When an escape did occur,” wrote Dr. Edgar Schein, a principal American investigator of the Chinese indoctrination program in Korea, “the Chinese usually recovered the man easily by offering a bag of rice to anyone turning him in.” In fact, nearly all American prisoners in the Chinese camps are said to have collaborated with the enemy in one form or another.26
An examination of the Chinese prison-camp program shows that its personnel relied heavily on commitment and consistency pressures to gain the desired compliance from prisoners. Of course, the first problem facing the Chinese was how to get any collaboration at all from the Americans. These were men who were trained to provide nothing but name, rank, and serial number. Short of physical brutalization, how could the captors hope to get such men to give military information, turn in fellow prisoners, or publicly denounce their country? The Chinese answer was elementary: Start small and build.
For instance, prisoners were frequently asked to make statements so mildly anti-American or pro-Communist as to seem inconsequential (“The United States is not perfect.” “In a Communist country, unemployment is not a problem.”). But once these minor requests were complied with, the men found themselves pushed to submit to related yet more substantive requests. 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 this 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.
The Chinese might then use his name and his essay in an anti-American radio broadcast beamed not only to the entire camp, but to other POW camps in North Korea, as well as to American forces in South Korea. Suddenly he would 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, often resulting in even more extensive acts of collaboration. Thus, while “only a few men were able to avoid collaboration altogether,” according to Dr. Schein, “the majority collaborated at one time or another by doing things which seemed to them trivial but which the Chinese were able to turn to their own advantage…. This was particularly effective in eliciting confessions, self-criticism, and information during interrogation.”27
If the Chinese know about the subtle power of this approach, it should not be surprising that another group of people interested in compliance is also aware of its usefulness. Many business organizations employ it regularly.
For the salesperson, the strategy is to obtain a large purchase by starting with a small one. Almost any small sale will do, because the purpose of that small transaction is not profit. It is commitment. Further purchases, even much larger ones, are expected to flow naturally from the commitment. An article in the trade magazine American Salesman put it succinctly:
The general idea is to pave the way for full-line distribution by starting with a small order…. Look at it this way—when a person has signed an order for your merchandise, even though the profit is so small it hardly compensates for the time and effort of making the call, he is no longer a prospect—he is a customer.28
The tactic of starting with a little request in order to gain eventual compliance with related larger requests has a name: the foot-in-the-door technique. Social scientists first became aware of its effectiveness in the mid-1960s when psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published an astonishing set of data.29 They reported the results of an experiment in which 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 just how the 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. Although the request was normally and understandably refused by the great majority (83 percent) of the other residents in the area, this particular group of people reacted quite favorably. A full 76 percent of them offered the use of their front yards.
The prime reason for their startling compliance has to do with something that had happened to them about two weeks earlier: They had made a small commitment to driver safety. A different volunteer worker had come to their doors and asked them to accept and display a little three-inch-square sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. It was such a trifling request that nearly all of them had agreed to it. But the effects of that request were enormous. Because they had innocently complied with a trivial safe-driving request a couple of weeks before, these homeowners became remarkably willing to comply with another such request that was massive in size.
Freedman and Fraser didn’t stop there. They tried a slightly different procedure on another sample of homeowners. These people first received a request to sign a petition that favored “keeping California beautiful.” Of course, nearly everyone signed, since state beauty, like efficiency in government or sound prenatal care, is one of those issues almost no one is against. After waiting about two weeks, Freedman and Fraser sent a new “volunteer worker” to these same homes to ask the residents to allow the big DRIVE CAREFULLY sign to be erected on their lawns. In some ways, their response was the most astounding of any of the homeowners in the study. Approximately half of these people consented to the installation of the DRIVE CAREFULLY billboard, even though the small commitment they had made weeks earlier was not to driver safety but to an entirely different public-service topic, state beautification.
At first, even Freedman and Fraser were bewildered by their findings. Why should the little act of signing a petition supporting state beautification cause people to be so willing to perform a different and much larger favor? After considering and discarding other explanations, Freedman and Fraser came upon one that offered a solution to the puzzle: Signing the beautification petition changed the view these people had of themselves. They saw themselves as public-spirited citizens who acted on their civic principles. When, two weeks later, they were asked to perform another public service by displaying the DRIVE CAREFULLY sign, they complied in order to be consistent with their newly formed self-images. According to Freedman and Fraser,
What may occur is a change in the person’s feelings about getting involved or taking action. Once he has agreed to a request, his attitude may change, he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who agrees to requests made by strangers, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes.30
What the Freedman and Fraser findings tell us, then, is to be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests. Such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much larger requests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier. It’s this second, general kind of influence concealed within small commitments that scares me.
It scares me enough that I am rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support. Such an action has the potential to influence not only my future behavior but also my self-image in ways I may not want. And once a person’s self-image is altered, all sorts of subtle advantages become available to someone who wants to exploit that new image.
Who among Freedman and Fraser’s homeowners would have thought that the “volunteer worker” who asked them to sign a state beautification petition was really interested in having them display a safe-driving billboard two weeks later? And who among them could have suspected that their decision to display the billboard was largely due to the act of signing the petition? No one, I’d guess. If there were any regrets after the billboard went up, who could they conceivably hold responsible but themselves and their own damnably strong civic spirit? They probably never even considered the guy with the “keeping California beautiful” petition and all that knowledge of jujitsu.
Notice that all of the foot-in-the-door experts seem to be excited about the same thing: 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.
Not all commitments affect self-image, however. There are certain conditions that should be present for a commitment to be effective in this way. To discover what they are, we can once again look to the American experience in the Chinese prison camps of Korea. It is important to understand that the major intent of the Chinese was not simply to extract information from their prisoners. It was to indoctrinate them, to change their attitudes and perceptions of themselves, of their political system, of their country’s role in the war, and of communism. And there is evidence that the program often worked alarmingly well.
Dr. Henry Segal, chief of the neuropsychiatric evaluation team that examined returning POWs at the war’s end, reported that war-related beliefs had been substantially shifted. The majority of the men believed the Chinese story that the United States had used germ warfare, and many felt that their own forces had been the initial aggressors in starting the war. Similar inroads had been made in the political attitudes of the men:
Many expressed antipathy toward the Chinese Communists but at the same time praised them for “the fine job they have done in China.” Others stated that “although communism won’t work in America, I think it’s a good thing for Asia.”31
It appears that the real goal of the Chinese was to modify, at least for a time, the hearts and minds of their captives. If we measure their achievement in terms of “defection, disloyalty, changed attitudes and beliefs, poor discipline, poor morale, poor esprit, and doubts as to America’s role,” Dr. Segal concluded that “their efforts were highly successful.” Because commitment tactics were so much a part of the effective Chinese assault on hearts and minds, it is quite informative to examine the specific features of the tactics they used.
The Magic Act
Our best evidence of what people truly feel and believe comes less from their words than from their deeds. Observers trying to decide what a man is like look closely at his actions. What the Chinese have discovered is that the man himself uses this same evidence to decide what he is like. His behavior tells him about himself; it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes. Understanding fully this important principle of self-perception, the Chinese set about arranging the prison-camp experience so that their captives would consistently act in desired ways. Before long, the Chinese knew, these actions would begin to take their toll, causing the men to change their views of themselves to align with what they had done.
Writing was one sort of confirming action that the Chinese urged incessantly upon the men. It was never enough for the prisoners to listen quietly or even to agree verbally with the Chinese line; they were always pushed to write it down as well. So intent were the Chinese on securing a written statement that if a prisoner was not willing to write a desired response freely, he was prevailed upon to copy it. The American psychologist Edgar Schein describes a standard indoctrination session tactic of the Chinese in these terms:
A further technique was to have the man write out the question and then the [pro-Communist] answer. If he refused to write it voluntarily, he was asked to copy it from the notebooks, which must have seemed like a harmless enough concession.
But, oh, those “harmless” concessions. We’ve already seen how apparently trifling commitments can lead to extraordinary further behavior. And the Chinese knew that, as a commitment device, a written declaration has some great advantages. First, it provides physical evidence that the act occurred. Once a man wrote what the Chinese wanted, it was very difficult for him to believe that he had not done so. The opportunities to forget or to deny to himself what he had done were not available, as they are for purely verbal statements. No; there it was in his own handwriting, an irrevocably documented act driving him to make his beliefs and his self-image consistent with what he had undeniably done.
A second advantage of a written testament is that it can be shown to other people. Of course, that means it can be used to persuade those people. It can persuade them to change their own attitudes in the direction of the statement. But more important for the purpose of commitment, it can persuade them that the author genuinely believes what was written. People have a natural tendency to think that a statement reflects the true attitude of the person who made it. What is surprising is that they continue to think so even when they know that the person did not freely choose to make the statement.
Some scientific evidence that this is the case comes from a study by psychologists Edward Jones and James Harris, who showed people an essay that was favorable to Fidel Castro and asked them to guess the true feelings of its author.32 Jones and Harris told some of these people that the author had chosen to write a pro-Castro essay; and they told the other people that the author had been required to write in favor of Castro. The strange thing was that even those people who knew that the author had been assigned to do a pro-Castro essay guessed that he liked Castro. It seems that a statement of belief produces a click, whirr response in those who view it. Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, observers automatically assume that someone who makes such a statement means it.
Think of the double-barreled effects on the self-image of a prisoner who wrote a pro-Chinese or anti-American statement. Not only was it a lasting personal reminder of his action, it was also likely to persuade those around him that the statement reflected his actual beliefs. And, as we will see in Chapter 4, what those around us think is true of us is enormously important in determining what we ourselves think is true. For example, one study found that after hearing that they were considered charitable people, New Haven, Connecticut, housewives gave much more money to a canvasser from the Multiple Sclerosis Association.33 Apparently the mere knowledge that someone viewed them as charitable caused these women to make their actions consistent with another’s perception of them.
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. And because others see us as believing what we have written (even when we’ve had little choice in the matter), we will once again experience a pull to bring self-image into line with the written statement.
In Korea, several subtle devices were used to get the prisoners to write, without direct coercion, what the Chinese wanted. For example, the Chinese knew that many prisoners were eager to let their families know that they were alive. At the same time, the men knew that their captors were censoring the mails and that only some letters were being allowed out of camp. To ensure that their own letters would be released, some prisoners began including in their messages peace appeals, claims of kind treatment, and statements sympathetic to communism. The hope was that the Chinese would want such letters to surface and would, therefore, allow their delivery. Of course, the Chinese were happy to cooperate because those letters served their interests marvelously. First, their worldwide propaganda effort benefited greatly from the appearance of pro-Communist statements by American servicemen. Second, in the service of prisoner indoctrination, they had, without raising a finger of physical force, gotten many men to go on record as supporting the Chinese cause.
A similar technique involved political essay contests that were regularly held in camp. The prizes for winning were invariably small—a few cigarettes or a bit of fruit—but were sufficiently scarce that they generated a lot of interest from the men. Usually the winning essay was one that took a solidly pro-Communist stand…but not always. The Chinese were wise enough to realize that most of the prisoners would not enter a contest that they could win only by writing a Communist tract. And the Chinese were clever enough to know how to plant small commitments to communism in the men that could be nurtured into later bloom. So the prize was occasionally given to an essay that generally supported the United States but that bowed once or twice to the Chinese view. The effects of this strategy were exactly what the Chinese wanted. The men continued to participate voluntarily in the contests because they saw that they could win with an essay highly favorable to their own country. But perhaps without realizing it, they began to shade their essays a bit toward communism in order to have a better chance of winning. The Chinese were ready to pounce on any concession to Communist dogma and to bring consistency pressures to bear upon it. In the case of a written declaration within a voluntary essay, they had a perfect commitment from which to build toward collaboration and conversion.
Other compliance professionals also know about the committing power of written statements. The enormously successful Amway Corporation, for instance, has hit upon a way to spur their sales personnel to greater and greater accomplishments. Members of the staff are asked to set individual sales goals and commit themselves to those goals by personally recording them on paper:
One final tip before you get started: Set a goal and write it down. Whatever the goal, the important thing is that you set it, so you’ve got something for which to aim—and that you write it down. There is something magical about writing things down. So set a goal and write it down. When you reach that goal, set another and write that down. You’ll be off and running.34
If the Amway people have found “something magical about writing things down,” so have other business organizations. Some door-to-door sales companies use the magic of written commitments to battle the “cooling-off” laws recently passed in many states. The laws are designed to allow customers a few days after purchasing an item to cancel the sale and receive a full refund. At first this legislation hurt the hard-sell companies deeply. Because they emphasize high-pressure tactics, their customers often buy, not because they want the product but because they are duped or intimidated into the sale. When the new laws went into effect, these customers began canceling in droves.
The companies have since learned a beautifully simple trick that cuts the number of such cancellations drastically. They merely have the customer, rather than the salesman, fill out the sales agreement. According to the sales-training program of a prominent encyclopedia company, that personal commitment alone has proved to be “a very important psychological aid in preventing customers from backing out of their contracts.” Like the Amway Corporation, then, these organizations have found that something special happens when people personally put their commitments on paper: They live up to what they have written down.
Another common way for businesses to cash in on the “magic” of written declarations occurs through the use of an innocent-looking promotional device. Before I began to study weapons of social influence, I used to wonder why big companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Foods are always running those “25-, 50-, or 100 words or less” testimonial contests. They all seem to be alike. The contestant is to compose a short personal statement that begins with the words, “Why I like…” and goes on to laud the features of whatever cake mix or floor wax happens to be at issue. The company judges the entries and awards some stunningly large prizes to the winners. What had puzzled me was what the companies got out of the deal. Often the contest requires no purchase; anyone submitting an entry is eligible. Yet, the companies appear to be strangely willing to incur the huge costs of contest after contest.
I am no longer puzzled. The purpose behind the testimonial contests is the same as the purpose behind the political essay contests of the Chinese Communists. In both instances, the aim is to get as many people as possible to go on record as liking the product. In Korea, the product was a brand of Chinese communism; in the United States, it might be a brand of cuticle remover. The type of product doesn’t matter; the process is the same. Participants voluntarily write essays for attractive prizes that they have only a small chance to win. But they know that for an essay to have any chance of winning at all, it must include praise for the product. So they find praiseworthy features of the product and describe them in their essays. The result is hundreds of men in Korea or hundreds of thousands of people in America who testify in writing to the product’s appeal and who, consequently, experience that “magical” pull to believe what they have written.
The Public Eye
One reason that written testaments are effective in bringing about genuine personal change is that they can so easily be made public. The prisoner experience in Korea showed the Chinese to be quite aware of an important psychological principle: Public commitments tend to be lasting commitments. The Chinese constantly arranged to have the pro-Communist statements of their captives seen by others. A man who had written a political essay the Chinese liked, for example, might find copies of it posted around camp, or might be asked to read it to a prisoner discussion group, or even to read it on the camp radio broadcast. As far as the Chinese were concerned, the more public the better. Why?
Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person. Remember that earlier in this chapter we described how desirable good personal consistency is as a trait; how someone without it could be judged as fickle, uncertain, pliant, scatterbrained, or unstable; how someone with it is viewed as rational, assured, trustworthy, and sound. Given this context, it is hardly surprising that people try to avoid the look of inconsistency. For appearances’ sake, then, the more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it.
An illustration of how public commitments can lead to doggedly consistent further action is provided in a famous experiment performed by a pair of prominent social psychologists, Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard. The basic procedure was to have college students first estimate in their own minds the length of lines they were shown. At this point, one sample of the students had to commit themselves publicly to their initial judgments by writing them down, signing their names to them, and turning them in to the experimenter. A second sample of students also committed themselves to their first estimates, but they did so privately by putting them on a Magic Writing Pad and then erasing them by lifting the Magic Pad’s plastic cover before anyone could see what they had written. A third set of students did not commit themselves to their initial estimates at all; they just kept the estimates in mind privately.
In these ways, Deutsch and Gerard had cleverly arranged for some students to commit themselves publicly, some privately, and some not at all to their initial decisions. What Deutsch and Gerard wanted to find out was which of the three types of students would be most inclined to stick with their first judgments after receiving information that those judgments were incorrect. So all of the students were given new evidence suggesting that their initial estimates were wrong, and they were then given the chance to change their estimates.
The results were quite clear. The students who had never written down their first choices were the least loyal to those choices. When new evidence was presented that questioned the wisdom of decisions that had never left their heads, these students were the most influenced by the new information to change what they had viewed as the “correct” decision. Compared to these uncommitted students, those who had merely written their decisions for a moment on a Magic Pad were significantly less willing to change their minds when given the chance. Even though they had committed themselves under the most anonymous of circumstances, the act of writing down their first judgments caused them to resist the influence of contradictory new data and to remain consistent with the preliminary choices. But Deutsch and Gerard found that, by far, it was the students who had publicly recorded their initial positions who most resolutely refused to shift from those positions later. Public commitment had hardened them into the most stubborn of all.
This sort of stubbornness can occur even in situations where accuracy should be more important than consistency. In one study, when six- or twelve-person experimental juries were deciding a close case, hung juries were significantly more frequent if the jurors had to express their opinions with a visible show of hands rather than by secret ballot. Once jurors had stated their initial views publicly, they were reluctant to allow themselves to change publicly, either. Should you ever find yourself as the foreperson of a jury under these conditions, then, you could reduce the risk of a hung jury by choosing a secret rather than public balloting technique.35
The Deutsch and Gerard finding that we are truest to our decisions if we have bound ourselves to them publicly can be put to good use. Consider the organizations dedicated to helping people rid themselves of bad habits. Many weight-reduction clinics, for instance, understand that often a person’s private decision to lose weight will be too weak to withstand the blandishments of bakery windows, wafting cooking scents, and late-night Sara Lee commercials. So they see to it that the decision is buttressed by the pillars of public commitment. They require their clients to write down an immediate weight-loss goal and show that goal to as many friends, relatives, and neighbors as possible. Clinic operators report that frequently this simple technique works where all else has failed.
Of course, there’s no need to pay a special clinic in order to engage a visible commitment as an ally. One San Diego woman described to me how she employed a public promise to help herself finally stop smoking:
I remember it was after I heard about another scientific study showing that smoking causes cancer. Every time one of those things came out, I used to get determined to quit, but I never could. This time, though, I decided I had to do something. I’m a proud person. It matters to me if other people see me in a bad light. So I thought, “Maybe I can use that pride to help me dump this damn habit.” So I made a list of all the people who I really wanted to respect me. Then I went out and got some blank business cards and I wrote on the back of each card, “I promise you that I will never smoke another cigarette.”
Within a week, I had given or sent a signed card to everybody on the list—my dad, my brother back East, my boss, my best girlfriend, my ex-husband, everybody but one—the guy I was dating then. I was just crazy about him, and I really wanted him to value me as a person. Believe me, I thought twice about giving him a card because I knew that if I couldn’t keep my promise to him I’d die. But one day at the office—he worked in the same building as I did—I just walked up to him, handed him the card, and walked away without saying anything.
Quitting “cold turkey” was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There must have been a thousand times when I thought I had to have a smoke. But whenever that happened, I’d just picture how all of the people on my list, especially this one guy, would think less of me if I couldn’t stick to my guns. And that’s all it took. I’ve never taken another puff.
You know, the interesting thing is the guy turned out to be a real schmuck. I can’t figure out what I saw in him back then. But at the time, without knowing it, he helped me get through the toughest part of the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. I don’t even like him anymore. Still, I do feel grateful in a way because I think he saved my life.
The Effort Extra
Yet another reason that written commitments are so effective is that they require more work than verbal ones. And the evidence is clear that the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it. We can find that evidence quite close to home or as far away as the back regions of the primitive world. For example, there is a tribe in southern Africa, the Thonga, that requires each of its boys to go through an elaborate initiation ceremony before he can be counted a man of the tribe. As with many other primitive peoples, a Thonga boy endures a great deal before he is admitted to adult membership in the group. Anthropologists Whiting, Kluckhohn, and Anthony have described this three-month ordeal in brief but vivid terms:
When a boy is somewhere between 10 and 16 years of age, he is sent by his parents to “circumcision school,” which is held every 4 or 5 years. Here in company with his age-mates he undergoes severe hazing by the adult males of the society. The initiation begins when each boy runs the gauntlet between two rows of men who beat him with clubs. At the end of this experience he is stripped of his clothes and his hair is cut. He is next met by a man covered with lion manes and is seated upon a stone facing this “lion man.” Someone then strikes him from behind and when he turns his head to see who has struck him, his foreskin is seized and in two movements cut off by the “lion man.” Afterward he is secluded for three months in the “yard of mysteries,” where he can be seen only by the initiated.
During the course of his initiation, the boy undergoes six major trials: beatings, exposure to cold, thirst, eating of unsavory foods, punishment, and the threat of death. On the slightest pretext, he may be beaten by one of the newly initiated men, who is assigned to the task by the older men of the tribe. He sleeps without covering and suffers bitterly from the winter cold. He is forbidden to drink a drop of water during the whole three months. Meals are often made nauseating by the half-digested grass from the stomach of an antelope, which is poured over his food. If he is caught breaking any important rule governing the ceremony, he is severely punished. For example, in one of these punishments, sticks are placed between the fingers of the offender, then a strong man closes his hand around that of the novice, practically crushing his fingers. He is frightened into submission by being told that in former times boys who had tried to escape or who had revealed the secrets to women or to the uninitiated were hanged and their bodies burned to ashes.36
On the face of it, these rites seem extraordinary and bizarre. Yet, at the same time, they can be seen to be remarkably similar in principle and even in detail to the common initiation ceremonies of school fraternities. During the traditional “Hell Week” held yearly on college campuses, fraternity pledges must persevere through a variety of activities designed by the older members to test the limits of physical exertion, psychological strain, and social embarrassment. At week’s end, the boys who have persisted through the ordeal are accepted for full group membership. Mostly their tribulations have left them no more than greatly tired and a bit shaky, although sometimes the negative effects are more serious.
What is interesting is how closely the particular features of Hell Week tasks match those of the tribal initiation rites. Recall that anthropologists identified six major trials to be endured by a Thonga initiate during his stay in the “yard of mysteries.” A scan of newspaper reports shows that each trial also has its place in the hazing rituals of Greek-letter societies:
There is another striking similarity between the initiation rites of tribal and fraternal societies: They simply will not die. Resisting all attempts to eliminate or suppress them, such hazing practices have been phenomenally resilient. Authorities, in the form of colonial governments or university administrations, have tried threats, social pressures, legal actions, banishments, bribes, and bans to persuade the groups to remove the hazards and humiliations from their initiation ceremonies. None has been successful. Oh, there may be a change while the authority is watching closely. But this is usually more apparent than real, the harsher trials occurring under more secret circumstances until the pressure is off and they can surface again.
On some college campuses, officials have tried to eliminate dangerous hazing practices by substituting a “Help Week” of civic service or by taking direct control of the initiation rituals. When such attempts are not slyly circumvented by fraternities, they are met with outright physical resistance. For example, in the aftermath of Richard Swanson’s choking death at USC, the university president issued new rules requiring that all pledging activities be reviewed by school authorities before going into effect and that adult advisers be present during initiation ceremonies. According to one national magazine, “The new ‘code’ set off a riot so violent that city police and fire detachments were afraid to enter campus.”
Resigning themselves to the inevitable, other college representatives have given up on the possibility of abolishing the degradations of Hell Week. “If hazing is a universal human activity, and every bit of evidence points to this conclusion, you most likely won’t be able to ban it effectively. Refuse to allow it openly and it will go underground. You can’t ban sex, you can’t prohibit alcohol, and you probably can’t eliminate hazing!”37
What is it about hazing practices that make them so precious to these societies? What could make the groups want to evade, undermine, or contest any effort to ban the degrading and perilous features of their initiation rites? Some have argued that the groups themselves are composed of psychological or social miscreants whose twisted needs demand that others be harmed and humiliated. But the evidence does not support such a view. Studies done on the personality traits of fraternity members, for instance, show them to be, if anything, slightly healthier than other college students in their psychological adjustment. Similarly, fraternities are known for their willingness to engage in beneficial community projects for the general social good. What they are not willing to do, however, is substitute these projects for their initiation ceremonies. One survey at the University of Washington found that, of the fraternity chapters examined, most had a type of Help Week tradition but that this community service was in addition to Hell Week. In only one case was such service directly related to initiation procedures.38
The picture that emerges of the perpetrators of hazing practices is of normal individuals who tend to be psychologically stable and socially concerned but who become aberrantly harsh as a group at only one time—immediately before the admission of new members to the society. The evidence, then, points to the ceremony as the culprit. There must be something about its rigors that is vital to the group. There must be some function to its harshness that the group will fight relentlessly to maintain. What?
My own view is that the answer appeared in 1959 in the results of a study little known outside of social psychology. A pair of young researchers, Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, decided to test their observation that “persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort.” The real stroke of inspiration came in their choice of the initiation ceremony as the best place to examine this possibility. They found that college women who had to endure a severely embarrassing initiation ceremony in order to gain access to a sex discussion group convinced themselves that their new group and its discussions were extremely valuable, even though Aronson and Mills had previously rehearsed the other group members to be as “worthless and uninteresting” as possible. Different coeds, who went through a much milder initiation ceremony or went through no initiation at all, were decidedly less positive about the “worthless” new group they had joined. Additional research showed the same results when coeds were required to endure pain rather than embarrassment to get into a group. The more electric shock a woman received as part of the initiation ceremony, the more she later persuaded herself that her new group and its activities were interesting, intelligent, and desirable.39
Now the harassments, the exertions, even the beatings of initiation rituals begin to make sense. The Thonga tribesman watching, with tears in his eyes, his ten-year-old son tremble through a night on the cold ground of the “yard of mysteries,” the college sophomore punctuating his Hell Night paddling of his fraternity “little brother” with bursts of nervous laughter—these are not acts of sadism. They are acts of group survival. They function, oddly enough, to spur future society members to find the group more attractive and worthwhile. As long as it is the case that people like and believe in what they have struggled to get, these groups will continue to arrange effortful and troublesome initiation rites. The loyalty and dedication of those who emerge will increase to a great degree the chances of group cohesiveness and survival. Indeed, one study of fifty-four tribal cultures found that those with the most dramatic and stringent initiation ceremonies were those with the greatest group solidarity.40 Given Aronson and Mills’s demonstration that the severity of an initiation ceremony significantly heightens the newcomer’s commitment to the group, it is hardly surprising that groups will oppose all attempts to eliminate this crucial link to their future strength.
Military groups and organizations are by no means exempt from these same processes. The agonies of “boot camp” initiations to the armed services are legendary. The novelist William Styron, a former Marine, catalogs his own experiences in language we could easily apply to the Thongas (or, for that matter, to the Kappas or Betas or Alphas): “the remorseless close-order drill hour after hour in the burning sun, the mental and physical abuse, the humiliations, the frequent sadism at the hands of drill sergeants, all the claustrophobic and terrifying insults to the spirit which can make an outpost like Quantico or Parris Island one of the closest things in the free world to a concentration camp.” But, in his commentary, Styron does more than recount the misery of this “training nightmare”—he recognizes its intended outcome: “There is no ex-Marine of my acquaintance, regardless of what direction he may have taken spiritually or politically after those callow gung-ho days, who does not view the training as a crucible out of which he emerged in some way more resilient, simply braver and better for the wear.”
But why should we believe William Styron, the writer, in such matters? After all, for professional storytellers, the line between truth and fiction is often blurred. Indeed, why should we believe him when he alleges that the “infernal” character of his military training was not only successful, it was specifically intended, intended to create desired levels of pride and camaraderie among those who endured and survived it? At least one reason to accept his assessment comes from unfictionalized reality—the case of West Point cadet John Edwards, who was expelled from the U.S. Military Academy in 1988 on charges involving the authorized hazing that all first-year cadets experience at the hands of upperclassmen to ensure that the newcomers can withstand the rigors of West Point training. It was not that Mr. Edwards, who ranked academically near the top of his eleven-hundred-member class, had been unable to bear up under the ritual when he was subjected to it. Nor was he expelled because he had been aberrantly cruel in his treatment of the younger cadets. His offense was that he would not expose the newcomers to what he felt was “absurd and dehumanizing” treatment. Once again, then, it appears that, for groups concerned about creating a lasting sense of solidarity and distinction, the hardship of demanding initiation activities provides a valuable advantage that they will not easily surrender—either to aspiring members who are unwilling to take the harshness or to give it out.
The Inner Choice
Examination of such diverse activities as the indoctrination practices of the Chinese Communists and the initiation rituals of college fraternities has provided some valuable information about commitment. It appears that commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior when they are active, public, and effortful. But there is another property of effective commitment that is more important than the other three combined. To understand what it is, we first need to solve a pair of puzzles in the actions of Communist interrogators and fraternity brothers.
The first puzzle comes from the refusal of fraternity chapters to allow public-service activities to be part of their initiation ceremonies. Recall that one survey showed that community projects, though frequent, were nearly always separated from the membership-induction program. But why? If an effortful commitment is what fraternities are after in their initiation rites, surely they could structure enough distasteful and strenuous civic activities for their pledges; there is plenty of exertion and unpleasantness to be had in the world of old-age-home repairs, mental-health-center yard work, and hospital bedpan duty. Besides, community-spirited endeavors of this sort would do much to improve the highly unfavorable public and media image of fraternity Hell Week rites; a survey showed that for every positive newspaper story concerning Hell Week, there were five negative stories. If only for public-relations reasons, then, fraternities should want to incorporate community-service efforts into their initiation practices. But they don’t.
To examine the second puzzle, we need to return to the Chinese prison camps of Korea and the regular political essay contests held for American captives. The Chinese wanted as many Americans as possible to enter these contests so that, in the process, they might write things favorable to the Communist view. If, however, the idea was to attract large numbers of entrants, why were the prizes so small? A few extra cigarettes or a little fresh fruit were often all that a contest winner could expect. In the setting, even these prizes were valuable, but still there were much larger rewards—warm clothing, special mail privileges, increased freedom of movement in camp—that the Chinese could have used to increase the number of essay writers. Yet they specifically chose to employ the smaller rather than the larger, more motivating rewards.
Although the settings are quite different, the surveyed fraternities refused to allow civic activities into their initiation ceremonies for the same reason that the Chinese withheld large prizes in favor of less powerful inducements: They wanted the men to own what they had done. No excuses, no ways out were allowed. A man who suffered through an arduous hazing could not be given the chance to believe he did so for charitable purposes. A prisoner who salted his political essay with a few anti-American comments could not be permitted to shrug it off as motivated by a big reward. No, the fraternity chapters and Chinese Communists were playing for keeps. It was not enough to wring commitments out of their men; those men had to be made to take inner responsibility for their actions.
Given the Chinese Communist government’s affinity for the political-essay contest as a commitment device, it should come as no surprise that a wave of such contests appeared in the aftermath of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, where pro-democracy protesters were gunned down by government soldiers. In Beijing alone, nine state-run newspapers and television stations sponsored essay competitions on the “quelling of the counterrevolutionary rebellion.” Still acting in accord with its long-standing and insightful de-emphasis of rewards for public commitments, the Beijing government left the contest prizes unspecified.
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.
All this has important implications for rearing children. It suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten our children to do the things we want them truly to believe in. Such pressures will probably produce temporary compliance with our wishes. However, if we want more than just that, if we want the children to believe in the correctness of what they have done, if we want them to continue to perform the desired behavior when we are not present to apply those outside pressures, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take. An experiment by Jonathan Freedman gives us some hints about what to do and what not to do in this regard.
Freedman wanted to see if he could prevent second- to fourth-grade boys from playing with a fascinating toy, just because he had said that it was wrong to do so some six weeks earlier. Anyone familiar with seven-to-nine-year-old boys must realize the enormity of the task. But Freedman had a plan. If he could first get the boys to convince themselves that it was wrong to play with the forbidden toy, perhaps that belief would keep them from playing with it thereafter. The difficult thing was making the boys believe that it was wrong to amuse themselves with the toy—an extremely expensive, battery-controlled robot.
Freedman knew it would be easy enough to have a boy obey temporarily. All he had to do was threaten the boy with severe consequences should he be caught playing with the toy. As long as he was nearby to deal out stiff punishment, Freedman figured that few boys would risk operating the robot. He was right. After showing a boy an array of five toys and warning him, “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,” Freedman left the room for a few minutes. During that time, the boy was observed secretly through a one-way mirror. Freedman tried this threat procedure on twenty-two different boys, and twenty-one of them never touched the robot while he was gone.
So a strong threat was successful while the boys thought they might be caught and punished. But Freedman had already guessed that. He was really interested in the effectiveness of the threat in guiding the boys’ behavior later on, when he was no longer around. To find out what would happen then, he sent a young woman back to the boys’ school about six weeks after he had been there. She took the boys out of the class one at a time to participate in an experiment. Without ever mentioning any connection with Freedman, she escorted each boy back to the room with the five toys and gave him a drawing test. While she was scoring the test, she told the boy that he was free to play with any toy in the room. Of course, almost all the boys played with a toy. The interesting result was that, of the boys playing with a toy, 77 percent chose to play with the robot that had been forbidden to them earlier. Freedman’s severe threat, which had been so successful six weeks before, was almost totally unsuccessful when he was no longer able to back it up with punishment.
But Freedman wasn’t finished yet. He changed his procedure slightly with a second sample of boys. These boys, too, were initially shown the array of five toys by Freedman and warned not to play with the robot while he was briefly out of the room because “It is wrong to play with the robot.” But this time, Freedman provided no strong threat to frighten a boy into obedience. He simply left the room and observed through the one-way mirror to see if his instruction against playing with the forbidden toy was enough. It was. Just as with the other sample, only one of the twenty-two boys touched the robot during the short time Freedman was gone.
The real difference between the two samples of boys came six weeks later, when they had a chance to play with the toys while Freedman was no longer around. An astonishing thing happened with the boys who had earlier been given no strong threat against playing with the robot: When given the freedom to play with any toy they wished, most avoided the robot, even though it was by far the most attractive of the five toys available (the others were a cheap plastic submarine, a child’s baseball glove without a ball, an unloaded toy rifle, and a toy tractor). When these boys played with one of the five toys, only 33 percent chose the robot.
Something dramatic had happened to both groups of boys. For the first group, it was the severe threat they heard from Freedman to back up his statement that playing with the robot was “wrong.” It had been quite effective at first when Freedman could catch them should they violate his rule. Later, though, when he was no longer present to observe the boys’ behavior, his threat was impotent and his rule was, consequently, ignored. It seems clear that the threat had not taught the boys that operating the robot was wrong, only that it was unwise to do so when the possibility of punishment existed.
For the other boys, the dramatic event had come from the inside, not the outside. Freedman had instructed them, too, that playing with the robot was wrong, but he had added no threat of punishment should they disobey him. There were two important results. First, Freedman’s instruction alone was enough to prevent the boys from operating the robot while he was briefly out of the room. Second, the boys took personal responsibility for their choice to stay away from the robot during that time. They decided that they hadn’t played with it because they didn’t want to. After all, there were no strong punishments associated with the toy to explain their behavior otherwise. Thus, weeks later, when Freedman was nowhere around, they still ignored the robot because they had been changed inside to believe that they did not want to play with it.41
Adults facing the child-rearing experience can take a cue from the Freedman study. Suppose a couple wants to impress upon their daughter that lying is wrong. A strong, clear threat (“It’s bad to lie, honey; so if I catch you at it, I’ll cut your tongue out”) might well be effective when the parents are present or when the girl thinks she can be discovered. But it will not achieve the larger goal of convincing her that she does not want to lie because she thinks it’s wrong. To do that, a much subtler approach is required. A reason must be given that is just strong enough to get her to be truthful most of the time but is not so strong that she sees it as the obvious reason for her truthfulness. It’s a tricky business, because exactly what this barely sufficient reason will be changes from child to child. For one little girl, a simple appeal may be enough (“It’s bad to lie, honey; so I hope you won’t do it”); for another child, it may be necessary to add a somewhat stronger reason (“…because if you do, I’ll be disappointed in you”); for a third child, a mild form of warning may be required as well (“…and I’ll probably have to do something I don’t want to do”). Wise parents will know which kind of reason will work on their own children. The important thing is to use a reason that will initially produce the desired behavior and will, at the same time, allow a child to take personal responsibility for that behavior. Thus, the less detectable outside pressure such a reason contains, the better. Selecting just the right reason is not an easy task for parents. But the effort should pay off. It is likely to mean the difference between short-lived compliance and long-term commitment.
For a pair of reasons we have already talked about, compliance professionals love commitments that produce inner change. First, that change is not just specific to the situation where it first occurred; it covers a whole range of related situations, too. Second, the effects of the change are lasting. So, once a man has been induced to take action that shifts his self-image to that of, let’s say, a public-spirited citizen, he is likely to be public-spirited in a variety of other circumstances where his compliance may also be desired, and he is likely to continue his public-spirited behavior for as long as his new self-image holds.
There is yet another attraction in commitments that lead to inner change—they grow their own legs. There is no need for the compliance professional to undertake a costly and continuing effort to reinforce the change; the pressure for consistency will take care of all that. After our friend comes to view himself as a public-spirited citizen, he will automatically begin to see things differently. He will convince himself that it is the correct way to be. He will begin to pay attention to facts he hadn’t noticed before about the value of community service. He will make himself available to hear arguments he hadn’t heard before favoring civic action. And he will find such arguments more persuasive than before. In general, because of the need to be consistent within his system of beliefs, he will assure himself that his choice to take public-spirited action was right. What is important about this process of generating additional reasons to justify the commitment is that the reasons are new. Thus, even if the original reason for the civic-minded behavior was taken away, these newly discovered reasons might be enough by themselves to support his perception that he had behaved correctly.
The advantage to an unscrupulous compliance professional is tremendous. Because we build new struts to undergird choices we have committed ourselves to, an exploitative individual can offer us an inducement for making such a choice, and after the decision has been made, can remove that inducement, knowing that our decision will probably stand on its own newly created legs. New-car dealers frequently try to benefit from this process through a trick they call “throwing a lowball.” I first encountered the tactic while posing as a sales trainee at a local Chevrolet dealership. After a week of basic instruction, I was allowed to watch the regular salesmen perform. One practice that caught my attention right away was the lowball.
For certain customers, a very good price is offered on a car, perhaps as much as four hundred dollars below competitors’ prices. The good deal, however, is not genuine; the dealer never intends it to go through. Its only purpose is to cause a prospect to decide to buy one of the dealership’s cars. Once the decision is made, a number of activities develop the customer’s sense of personal commitment to the car—a raft of purchase forms are filled out, extensive financing terms are arranged, sometimes the customer is encouraged to drive the car for a day before signing the contract “so you can get the feel of it and show it around in the neighborhood and at work.” During this time, the dealer knows, customers automatically develop a range of new reasons to support the choice they have now made.
Then something happens. Occasionally an “error” in the calculations is discovered—maybe the salesman forgot to add in the cost of the air conditioner, and if the buyer still requires air conditioning, four hundred dollars must be added to the price. To keep from being suspected of gouging by the customer, some dealers let the bank handling the financing find the mistake. At other times, the deal is disallowed at the last moment when the salesman checks with his boss, who cancels it because “We’d be losing money.” For only another four hundred dollars the car can be had, which, in the context of a multithousand-dollar deal, doesn’t seem too steep since, as the salesman emphasizes, the cost is equal to competitors’ and “This is the car you chose, right?” Another, even more insidious form of lowballing occurs when the salesman makes an inflated trade-in offer on the prospect’s old car as part of the buy/trade package. The customer recognizes the offer as overly generous and jumps at the deal. Later, before the contract is signed, the used-car manager says that the salesman’s estimate was four hundred dollars too high and reduces the trade-in allowance to its actual, blue-book level. The customer, realizing that the reduced offer is the fair one, accepts it as appropriate and sometimes feels guilty about trying to take advantage of the salesman’s high estimate. I once witnessed a woman provide an embarrassed apology to a salesman who had used the last version of lowballing on her—this while she was signing a new-car contract giving him a huge commission. He looked hurt but managed a forgiving smile.
No matter which variety of lowballing is used, the sequence is the same: An advantage is offered that induces a favorable purchase decision; then, sometime after the decision has been made but before the bargain is sealed, the original purchase advantage is deftly removed. It seems almost incredible that a customer would buy a car under these circumstances. Yet it works—not on everybody, of course, but it is effective enough to be a staple compliance procedure in many, many car showrooms. Automobile dealers have come to understand the ability of a personal commitment to build its own support system, a support system of new justifications for the commitment. Often these justifications provide so many strong legs for the decision to stand on that when the dealer pulls away only one leg, the original one, there is no collapse. The loss can be shrugged off by the customer who is consoled, even made happy, by the array of other good reasons favoring the choice. It never occurs to the buyer that those additional reasons might never have existed had the choice not been made in the first place.42
The impressive thing about the lowball tactic is its ability to make a person feel pleased with a poor choice. Those who have only poor choices to offer us, then, are especially fond of the technique. We can find them throwing lowballs in business, social, and personal situations. For instance, there’s my neighbor Tim, a true lowball aficionado. Recall that he’s the one who, by promising to change his ways, got his girlfriend, Sara, to cancel her impending marriage to another and to take him back. Since her decision for Tim, Sara has become more devoted to him than ever, even though he has not fulfilled his promises. She explains this by saying that she has allowed herself to see all sorts of positive qualities in Tim she had never recognized before.
I know full well that Sara is a lowball victim. Just as sure as I had watched buyers fall for the give-it-and-take-it-away-later strategy in the car showroom, I watched her fall for the same trick with Tim. For his part, Tim remains the guy he has always been. But because the new attractions Sara has discovered (or created) in him are quite real for her, she now seems satisfied with the same arrangement that was unacceptable before her enormous commitment. The decision to choose Tim, poor as it may have been objectively, has grown its own supports and appears to have made Sara genuinely happy. I have never mentioned to Sara what I know about lowballing. The reason for my silence is not that I think her better off in the dark on the issue. As a general guiding principle, more information is always better than less information. It’s just that, if I said a word, I am confident she would hate me for it.
Depending on the motives of the person wishing to use them, any of the compliance techniques discussed in this book can be employed for good or for ill. It should not be surprising, then, that the lowball tactic can be used for more socially beneficial purposes than selling new cars or reestablishing relationships with former lovers. One research project done in Iowa, for example, shows how the lowball procedure can influence homeowners to conserve energy.43 The project, headed by Dr. Michael Pallak, began at the start of the Iowa winter when residents who heated their homes with natural gas were contacted by an interviewer. The interviewer gave them some energy-conservation tips and asked them to try to save fuel in the future. Although they all agreed to try, when the researchers examined the utility records of these families after a month and again at winter’s end, it was clear that no real savings had occurred. The residents who had promised to make a conservation attempt used just as much natural gas as a random sample of their neighbors who had not been contacted by an interviewer. Just good intentions coupled with information about saving fuel, then, were not enough to change habits.
Even before the project began, Pallak and his research team had recognized that something more would be needed to shift long-standing energy patterns. So they tried a slightly different procedure on a comparable sample of Iowa natural-gas users. These people, too, were contacted by an interviewer, who provided energy-saving hints and asked them to conserve. But for these families, the interviewer offered something else: Those residents agreeing to save energy would have their names publicized in newspaper articles as public-spirited, fuel-conserving citizens. The effect was immediate. One month later, when the utility companies checked their meters, the homeowners in this sample had saved an average of 422 cubic feet of natural gas apiece. The chance to have their names in the paper had motivated these residents to substantial conservation efforts for a period of a month.
Then the rug was pulled out. The researchers extracted the reason that had initially caused these people to save fuel. Each family that had been promised publicity received a letter saying it would not be possible to publicize their names after all.
At the end of the winter, the research team examined the effect that letter had had on the natural-gas usage of the families. Did they return to their old, wasteful habits when the chance to be in the newspaper was removed? Hardly. For each of the remaining winter months, they actually conserved more fuel than they had during the time they thought they would be publicly celebrated for it! In terms of percentage of energy savings, they had managed a 12.2 percent first-month gas savings because they expected to see themselves lauded in the paper. But after the letter arrived informing them to the contrary, they did not return to their previous energy-use levels; instead, they increased their savings to a 15.5 percent level for the rest of the winter.
Although we can never be completely sure of such things, one explanation for their persistent behavior presents itself immediately. These people had been lowballed into a conservation commitment through a promise of newspaper publicity. Once made, that commitment started generating its own support: The homeowners began acquiring new energy habits, began feeling good about their public-spirited efforts, began convincing themselves of the vital need to reduce American dependence on foreign fuel, began appreciating the monetary savings in their utility bills, began feeling proud of their capacity for self-denial, and, most important, began viewing themselves as conservation-minded. With all these new reasons present to justify the commitment to use less energy, it is no wonder that the commitment remained firm even after the original reason, newspaper publicity, had been kicked away.
But strangely enough, when the publicity factor was no longer a possibility, these families did not merely maintain their fuel-saving effort, they heightened it. Any of a number of interpretations could be offered for that still stronger effort, but I have a favorite. In a way, the opportunity to receive newspaper publicity had prevented the homeowners from fully owning their commitment to conservation. Of all the reasons supporting the decision to try to save fuel, it was the only one that had come from the outside; it was the only one preventing the homeowners from thinking that they were conserving gas because they believed in it. So when the letter arrived canceling the publicity agreement, it removed the only impediment to these residents’ images of themselves as fully concerned, energy-conscious citizens. This unqualified, new self-image then pushed them to even greater heights of conservation. Whether or not such an explanation is correct, a repeat study done by Pallak indicates that this hidden benefit of the lowball tactic is no fluke.
The experiment was done in summer on Iowans whose homes were cooled by central air-conditioning. Those homeowners who were promised newspaper publicity decreased their electricity use by 27.8 percent during July, as compared to similar homeowners who were not promised any coverage or who were not contacted at all. At the end of July, a letter was sent canceling the publicity promise. Rather than reverting to their old habits, the lowballed residents increased their August energy savings to a stunning 41.6 percent. Much like Sara, they appeared to have become committed to a choice through an initial inducement and were still more dedicated to it after the inducement had been removed.
HOW TO SAY NO
“Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Or, at least, so goes a frequently heard quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. But what a very odd thing to say. Looking around, it is obvious that, quite contrary to what Emerson seems to have suggested, internal consistency is a hallmark of logic and intellectual strength, while its lack characterizes the intellectually scattered and limited among us. What, then, could a thinker of Emerson’s caliber have meant when he assigned the trait of consistency to the small-minded? I was sufficiently intrigued to go back to the original source of his statement, the essay “Self-Reliance,” where it was clear that the problem lay not in Emerson, but in the popular version of what he had said. Actually he wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” For some obscure reason, a central distinction had been lost as the years eroded the accurate version of his statement to mean something entirely different and, upon close inspection, entirely silly.44
That distinction should not be lost on us, however, because it is vital to the only effective defense I know against the weapons of influence embodied in the combined principles of commitment and consistency. Although consistency is generally good, even vital, there is a foolish, rigid variety to be shunned. It is this tendency to be automatically and unthinkingly consistent that Emerson referred to. And it is this tendency that we must be wary of, for it lays us open to the maneuvers of those who want to exploit the mechanical commitment consistency sequence for profit.
But since automatic consistency is so useful in allowing us an economical and appropriate way of behaving most of the time, we can’t decide merely to eliminate it from our lives altogether. The results would be disastrous. If, rather than whirring along in accordance with our prior decisions and deeds, we stopped to think through the merits of every new action before performing it, we would never have time to accomplish anything significant. We need even that dangerous, mechanical brand of consistency. The only way out of the dilemma is to know when such consistency is likely to lead to a poor choice. There are certain signals—two separate kinds of signals, in fact—to tip us off. We register each type in a different part of our bodies.
The first sort of signal is easy to recognize. It occurs right in the pit of our stomachs when we realize we are trapped into complying with a request we know we don’t want to perform. It has happened to me a hundred times. An especially memorable instance, though, took place on a summer evening well before I began to study compliance tactics. I answered my doorbell to find a stunning young woman dressed in shorts and a revealing halter top. I noticed, nonetheless, that she was carrying a clipboard and was asking me to participate in a survey. Wanting to make a favorable impression, I agreed and, I do admit, stretched the truth in my interview answers so as to present myself in the most positive light. Our conversation went as follows:
STUNNING YOUNG WOMAN: Hello, I’m doing a survey on the entertainment habits of city residents, and I wonder if you could answer a few questions for me.
CIALDINI: Do come in.
SYW: Thank you. I’ll just sit right here and begin. How many times per week would you say that you go out to dinner?
C: Oh, probably three, maybe four times a week. Whenever I can, really; I love fine restaurants.
SYW: How nice. And do you usually order wine with your dinner?
C: Only if it’s imported.
SYW: I see. What about movies? Do you go to the movies much?
C: The cinema? I can’t get enough of good films. I especially like the sophisticated kind with the words on the bottom of the screen. How about you? Do you like to see films?
SYW: Uh…yes, I do. But let’s get back to the interview. Do you go to many concerts?
C: Definitely. The symphonic stuff mostly, of course; but I do enjoy a quality pop group as well.
SYW (writing rapidly): Great! Just one more question. What about touring performances by theatrical or ballet companies? Do you see them when they’re in town?
C: Ah, the ballet—the movement, the grace, the form—I love it. Mark me down as loving the ballet. See it every chance I get.
SYW: Fine. Just let me recheck my figures here for a moment, Mr. Cialdini.
C: Actually, it’s Dr. Cialdini. But that sounds so formal; why don’t you call me Bob?
SYW: All right, Bob. From the information you’ve already given me, I’m pleased to say that you could save up to twelve hundred dollars a year by joining Clubamerica! A small membership fee entitles you to discounts on most of the activities you’ve mentioned. Surely someone as socially vigorous as yourself would want to take advantage of the tremendous savings our company can offer on all the things you’ve already told me you do.
C (trapped like a rat): Well…uh…I…uh…I guess so.
I remember quite well feeling my stomach tighten as I stammered my agreement. It was a clear call to my brain, “Hey, you’re being taken here!” But I couldn’t see a way out. I had been cornered by my own words. To decline her offer at that point would have meant facing a pair of distasteful alternatives: If I tried to back out by protesting that I was not actually the man-about-town I had claimed to be during the interview, I would come off a liar; but trying to refuse without that protest would make me come off a fool for not wanting to save twelve hundred dollars. So I bought the entertainment package, even though I knew I had been set up so that the need to be consistent with what I had already said would snare me.
No more, though. 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. It works beautifully. Most of the time, they don’t understand me; they just become sufficiently confused to want to leave me alone. I think they suspect lunacy in anyone who responds to their requests by explaining what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant in distinguishing between consistency and foolish consistency. Usually they have already begun edging away by the time I have mentioned “hobgoblins of the mind” and are gone long before I have described the click, whirr character of commitment and consistency. Occasionally, though, they realize that I am on to their game. I always know when that happens—it’s as clear as the egg on their faces. They invariably become flustered, bumble through a hasty exit line, and go for the door.
This tactic has become the perfect counterattack for me. Whenever my stomach tells me I would be a sucker to comply with a 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 guiltily or retreats in bewilderment, I am content. I have won; an exploiter has lost.
I sometimes think about how it would be if that stunning young woman of years ago were to try to sell me an entertainment-club membership now. I have it all worked out. The entire interaction would be the same, except for the end:
SYW:…Surely someone as socially vigorous as yourself would want to take advantage of the tremendous savings our company can offer on all the things you’ve already told me you do.
C (with great self-assurance): Quite wrong. You see, I recognize what has gone on here. I know that your story about doing a survey was just a pretext for getting people to tell you how often they go out and that, under those circumstances, there is a natural tendency to exaggerate. I also realize that your bosses selected you for this job because of your physical attractiveness and told you to wear clothes showing a lot of your resilient body tissue because a pretty, scantily clad woman is likely to get men to brag about what swingers they are in order to impress her. So I’m not interested in your entertainment club because of what Emerson said about foolish consistency and hobgoblins of the mind.
SYW (staring blankly): Huh?
C: Look. What I told you during your fake survey doesn’t matter. I refuse to allow myself to be locked into a mechanical sequence of commitment and consistency when I know it’s wrongheaded. No click, whirr for me.
C: Okay, let me put it this way: (1) It would be stupid of me to spend money on something I don’t want. (2) I have it on excellent authority, direct from my stomach, that I don’t want your entertainment plan. (3) Therefore, if you still believe that I will buy it, you probably also still believe in the Tooth Fairy. Surely, someone as intelligent as yourself would be able to understand that.
SYW (trapped like a stunning young rat): Well…uh…I…uh…I guess so.
Stomachs are not especially perceptive or subtle organs. Only when it is obvious that we are about to be conned are they likely to register and transmit that message. At other times, when it is not clear that we are being taken, our stomachs may never catch on. Under those circumstances we have to look elsewhere for a clue. The situation of my neighbor Sara provides a good illustration. She made an important commitment to Tim by canceling her prior marriage plans. That commitment has grown its own supports, so that even though the original reasons for the commitment are gone, she remains in harmony with it. She has convinced herself with newly formed reasons that she did the right thing, so she stays with Tim. It is not difficult to see why there would be no tightening in Sara’s stomach as a result. Stomachs tell us when we are doing something we think is wrong for us. Sara thinks no such thing. To her mind, she has chosen correctly and is behaving consistently with that choice.
Yet, unless I badly miss my guess, there is a part of Sara that recognizes her choice as a mistake and her current living arrangement as a brand of foolish consistency. Where, exactly, that part of Sara is located we can’t be sure. But our language does give it a name: heart of hearts. It is, by definition, the one place where we cannot fool ourselves. It is the place where none of our justifications, none of our rationalizations penetrate. Sara has the truth there, although, right now, she can’t hear its signal clearly through the noise and static of the new support apparatus she has erected.
If Sara has erred in her choice of Tim, how long could she go without clearly recognizing it, without having a massive heart of hearts attack? There is no telling. One thing is certain, however: As time passes, the various alternatives to Tim are disappearing. She had better determine soon whether she is making a mistake.
Easier said than done, of course. She must answer an extremely intricate question: “Knowing what I now know, if I could go back in time, would I make the same choice?” The problem lies in the “Knowing what I now know” part of the question. Just what does she now know, accurately, about Tim? How much of what she thinks of him is the result of a desperate attempt to justify the commitment she made? She claims that since her decision to take him back, he cares for her more, is trying hard to stop his excessive drinking, has learned to make a wonderful omelet, etc. Having tasted a couple of his omelets, I have my doubts. The important issue, though, is whether she believes these things, not just intellectually—we can play such mind games on ourselves—but in her heart of hearts.
There may be a little device Sara can use to find out how much of her current satisfaction with Tim is real and how much is foolish consistency. Accumulating psychological evidence indicates that we experience our feelings toward something a split second before we can intellectualize about it.45 My suspicion is that the message sent by the heart of hearts is a pure, basic feeling. Therefore, if we train ourselves to be attentive, we should register it ever so slightly before our cognitive apparatus engages. According to this approach, were Sara to ask herself the crucial “Would I make the same choice again?” question, she would be well advised to look for and trust the first flash of feeling she experienced in response. It would likely be the signal from her heart of hearts, slipping through undistorted just before the means by which she could kid herself flooded in.46
I have begun using the same device myself whenever I even suspect I might be acting in a foolishly consistent manner. One time, for instance, I had stopped at the self-service pump of a filling station advertising a price per gallon a couple of cents below the rate of other stations in the area. But with pump nozzle in hand, I noticed that the price listed on the pump was two cents higher than the display sign price. When I mentioned the difference to a passing attendant, who I later learned was the owner, he mumbled unconvincingly that the rates had changed a few days ago but there hadn’t been time to correct the display. I tried to decide what to do. Some reasons for staying came to mind—“I really do need gasoline badly.” “This pump is available, and I am in sort of a hurry.” “I think I remember that my car runs better on this brand of gas.”
I needed to determine whether those reasons were genuine or mere justifications for my decision to stop there. So I asked myself the crucial question, “Knowing what I know about the real price of this gasoline, if I could go back in time, would I make the same choice again?” Concentrating on the first burst of impression I sensed, the answer was clear and unqualified. I would have driven right past. I wouldn’t even have slowed down. I knew then that without the price advantage, those other reasons would not have brought me there. They hadn’t created the decision; the decision had created them.
That settled, there was another decision to be faced, though. Since I was already there holding the hose, wouldn’t it be better to use it than to suffer the inconvenience of going elsewhere to pay the same price? Fortunately, the station attendant-owner came over and helped me make up my mind. He asked why I wasn’t pumping any gas. I told him I didn’t like the price discrepancy, and he said with a snarl, “Listen, nobody’s gonna tell me how to run my business. If you think I’m cheating you, just put that hose down right now and get off my property as fast as you can do it, bud.” Already certain he was a cheat, I was happy to act consistently with my belief and his wishes. I dropped the hose on the spot…and drove over it on my way to the closest exit. Sometimes consistency can be a marvelously rewarding thing.
From a Woman Living in Portland, Oregon
“I was walking through downtown Portland on my way to a lunch appointment when a young, attractive man stopped me with a friendly smile and a powerful line: ‘Excuse me, I’m involved in a contest and I need a good-looking woman like yourself to help me win.’ I was truly skeptical, since I know there are many more attractive women than myself running around; however, I was caught off guard and was curious to find out what he wanted. He explained that he would receive points for a contest by getting total strangers to give him a kiss. Now I consider myself a fairly level-headed person who shouldn’t have believed his line, but he was quite persistent, and since I was almost late for my lunch appointment, I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll give the guy a kiss and get out of here.’ So I did something totally against my common sense and pecked this total stranger on the cheek in the middle of downtown Portland!
“I thought that would be the end of it, but I soon learned that it was just the beginning. Much to my distress, he followed the kiss with the line ‘You are a great kisser, but the real contest I am involved in is to sell magazine subscriptions. You must be an active person. Would any of these magazines interest you?’ At this point I should have slugged the guy and walked away; but somehow, because I had complied with his initial request, I felt a need to be consistent, and I complied with his second request. Yes, much to my own disbelief, I actually subscribed to SKI magazine (which I occasionally enjoy reading, but had no intention of subscribing to), gave him a five-dollar initial-subscription fee and left as quickly as possible, feeling quite frustrated with what I had just done and not understanding why I had done it.
“Although it still pains me to think about it, in reflecting on the incident after reading your book, I’ve now figured out what happened. The reason this tactic worked so effectively is because once small commitments have been made (in this case, giving a kiss), people tend to add justifications to support the commitment and then are willing to commit themselves further. In this situation, I justified complying with the second request because it was consistent with my initial action. If I had only listened to my ‘stomach signs,’ I could have saved myself a lot of humiliation.”
By extracting a kiss, the salesman exploited the consistency principle in two ways. First, by the time he asked for her aid in the magazine contest, his prospect had already gone on record—with that kiss—as agreeing to help him win a contest. Second, it seems only natural (i.e., congruent) that if a woman feels positively enough toward a man to kiss him, she should feel positively toward helping him out.