Recent political scandals, and mistaken historical recitations by politicians have left many people wondering why some people will seemingly, and often illogically, leap to the defense of those who otherwise should be chastised, ridiculed or, heaven forbid, educated. The answer is simple: the human desire, sometimes unconscious, to appear consistent. This is called the “commitment-consistency principle.”
It was eighteenth century English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who said: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking.” This wonderful reflection on our innate desire to conserve intellectual energy is clearly demonstrated by looking at the principle.
This “psychological override button” will often make us put our ability to reason into neutral and just act, or react, in a way that appears consistent with our earlier statements or actions. This has huge ramifications for the way in which others can influence us, take advantage of us, and even use us for their own ends. However, it also has useful applicability when it comes to the way that we can positively influence ourselves to take action.
The simplified version of the principle holds that people who commit to do something, or who commit to a position, will go to incredible lengths to act consistently with that commitment. This is the case even when it is unreasonable or even harmful to do so. Once we have committed, many of us can become close to obsessive to be, or appear to be, consistent with that earlier commitment.
A great example of commitment-consistency is cited in the outstanding work of Robert Cialdini. He cites, as a wonderful example, the Knox and Inster “racetrack experiment”- this experiment demonstrated that people became far more confident of a horse winning a race once they had placed their bet on that horse. This was the case even though no circumstances had changed from before the bet being placed. Once people had committed to a horse (their position) they demonstrated their consistency with this commitment by becoming more confident.
As a brief aside, I teach this theory in negotiation classes as an example of why position based bargaining in negotiations is counter-productive. If you allow people to commit, especially repeatedly, to a position then they will become entrenched and will proceed to act, even unreasonably, consistently with that position. The same is true in interviewing or examining a witness: the more you allow someone to take a position, or lie, the more entrenched they become and the harder time you will have moving them. Instead, I maintain, one should identify the other side's interest, have them openly acknowledge and commit to their interest, and then use persuasion techniques to have them act consistently with their "interest based commitment". I will cover that more at a later time.
I would suggest that we have seen a display of the commitment-consistency principle just this week in political events. When Sarah Palin visited Boston and mangled the history of "Paul Revere’s Ride", she went to huge lengths to defend what she had said, and so did others. This included reports that some of her supporters had tried to amend Wikipedia. I am sure people will comment on here that her recitation of “history” was correct, but think about that for a moment.
Even if one were to assume that Revere did indeed warn the British about Militia troop strength when in captivity, did her description really sum that up? Judge for yourself: “[Revere was] warning the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms. By ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.’’ I would submit that any thinking person would conclude that if he was in captivity when he spoke to the British, it was unlikely he was firing shots, riding his horse and ringing bells, unless of course the British prison system was far more liberal than today.
So why did she defend herself and why did people defend her? Commitment-consistency. She had obviously committed to herself. Further, those who defended her, in the main part, had backed her, or they had backed Republicans and, regardless of the facts, they stood up for their party or their candidate. The same principle holds true for those who are calling for the resignation of Anthony Weiner. Yet these same people did not, or will not call for the resignation of Senator Vitter. They are committed to a person or party and they act accordingly and even make statements that seem hypocritical or unreasonable.
There are many more examples, from both sides, in politics, but I thought my use of these case studies would help demonstrate that I am not acting consistently with what some felt was my commitment to a political side in earlier posts!
We have brought this on our own heads, haven’t we? It is seen as socially desirable for people to be consistent and is often seen as undesirable to be inconsistent. What politician ever wants to hear the term “flip-flopper” applied to them? Look to the words of the nineteenth century English chemist and natural philosopher, Michael Faraday. When asked whether a rival, despised, chemist was “always wrong” he replied, “he’s not that consistent.” Proof, if more was needed, that inconsistency is viewed as a negative characteristic.
However, I would submit that this view of consistency as an unimpeachable asset is harming us, our political system and our social discourse. We are victims of it. We leap to the defense of politicians, public figures and sports-teams and say and do things that are irrational. I catch myself laughing at this more than I should, because in many ways it is not that funny. But, I see people all the time on television or even on social networking sites saying or writing things that are patently absurd simply so that, whether consciously or unconsciously intended, they are seen, or feel themselves, as acting consistently with some position they hold. We need to step back once in a while and ask: "If it was not for my support of (fill in the blank) would I be saying this?" That is one effective way to combat the negative side of this phenomenon.
There are yet more negative effects of this principle. I am also convinced that the weakness of character demonstrated by those who will never apologize for wrongs they have done (and we can all name people who just will not apologize) is an extension of the commitment-consistency effect. These people are so weak in their character that they will not budge from an earlier statement or action, even when they know they are wrong.
If we are unaware of the operation of the principle then we can be easy marks. Politicians and businesses, among others, prey on us as a result. They realize that if they can get someone to commit to something, whether it is a candidate, an idea or a “cause” then they can get that person to act consistently with the commitment.
The effect of commitment-consistency can be made even more powerful. Studies conducted by many psychologists, including those conducted by Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard on students in 1955. They have shown that written commitments and commitments made publicly are more likely to be complied with by those who make them. Ask yourself whether you have ever noticed that highly effective sales people have YOU fill out the contract or purchase order, especially when there is a cooling off period that would allow you to cancel that contract. If this was not an effective tool, then why were there so many sales seminars teaching this to salespeople in states that enacted cooling off statutes?
All is not lost though, for there a good side to all of this and it is a reason why I heartily encourage friends who, on sites like Facebook, announce their desire to get fit, lose weight or train for athletic events. I encourage them because I admire what they are doing, I wish them the very best, I recognize the strength it takes to make a public commitment and, most of all, I realize that by their own actions they stand a better chance of success!
There is a “force multiplier” effect of writing out goals and making them public. If you are really serious about losing weight or getting fit then put pen to paper and let people know. When you do that you are far more likely to accomplish your goals. I must, however, add here a small caveat relayed to me by a friend, who is a highly regarded physician. When it comes to weight loss that the matter is far more complex in the case of obesity. I would not want anyone to think that commitment, alone, was the great panacea for anything, most especially overcoming medical conditions.
At the end of the day we need to have commitment and consistency in our lives, it is very valuable to us. However, as with all things, we must ensure that we do not fall victim. So, I caution everyone to keep a keen eye out for those who would try to use the potency of this principle against us. We must also keep an eye on ourselves to ensure we are not “just” doing or saying something because of blind obedience to a commitment we have made.
When we concentrate we can use the positive effects for good, and banish the negative effects, hopefully improving public discourse and our lives. Would that be a good thing? Well, it’s something I am committed to.