The psychology of persuasion – consistency

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

This article is the fourth in an eight-part series about Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In the last couple of articles I suggested that we might want to try advertising large goals to ourselves and then backing off to smaller ones, to invoke perceptual contrast and reciprocal concessions. The material in this chapter suggests an opposite approach: start by taking the smallest possible action toward your goal and then leverage that commitment to motivate yourself to do more.

Social psychology research suggests that taking even a small action creates commitment in us to the position that action represents, and that we will thereafter want to appear to behave in ways that are consistent with that position to both ourselves and others.

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.

Small steps transform our self-image

Cialdini demonstrates through several fascinating (and frightening) examples that people will go to great lengths to behave consistently with previous actions they have taken.

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. 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 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 request that was massive in size.

He went on to explain that what had changed in these people was their self-image. By taking the action to display the small sign, they had begun to see themselves as civic minded citizens who were willing to take action to promote safe driving in their community. They had also demonstrated they were willing to display a public safety message on their property. Agreeing to display the larger sign was behaving consistently with this new view of themselves.

Businesses sometimes use this strategy to sell you something small, even if they make no money on it. They are counting on the fact that your self-image has changed in the process: you now see yourself as their customer, and will be much more likely to return to make a larger purchase.

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.

Start small and build

I’ve often noticed that taking even very small steps toward my dreams produces disproportionately powerful results. Perhaps it’s because of the consistency principle. By taking a step – any step – toward a goal, my self image has been transformed. I now see myself as the kind of person who takes action toward that goal. The next step is much easier to take because I’m just behaving consistently.

The examples above demonstrate that small actions can pave the way toward unconscious willingness to do much larger ones. Perhaps you can influence your own self image in small ways that lead toward large results. What are some small actions that would lead you closer to thinking of yourself in the following ways:

  • I am a person who achieves my goals.
  • I am a person who loves my home.
  • I am a person who is control of my own time.
  • I am a person who prioritizes family.
  • I am a person who contributes my creativity to the greater good
  • I am a person who enjoys the outdoors
  • I am a person who dresses well.
  • I am a person who is financially comfortable
  • I am a person who is strong and healthy
  • I am a person who is centered and relaxed

What does this have to do with advertising?

I can think of several ways to take advantage of the consistency principle in personal advertising:

1. Remind yourself to take that first action.

The main task in using the consistency principle on yourself is to get yourself to do those first small actions that change your self-image. You can use ads to make it more likely that you’ll take those steps. In fact, the act of making the ad is itself an action that signals your commitment.

  • Remember to order a book about the topic by downloading a picture of its cover.
  • Post a flyer for a class or event about the topic on your refrigerator.
  • Download pictures of gear you’ll need and put them in your gadget slideshow
  • Download the logo of the place you want to work and make it your desktop background.
  • Photoshop your face onto a picture of someone else doing the thing you want to do. Print that picture and post it on your bathroom mirror.
  • Find a picture of your desired outcome and make it your screensaver.

2. Photograph yourself doing those actions.

Take a picture whenever you take a step toward your goal. Use those images to remind yourself that you are now the kind of person who behaves consistently with that goal. Place those images in your screensaver slideshow, gadget slideshow, Hipster PDA, etc., where you’ll see them many times a day. When that inspires you to take the next step toward your goal, photograph that one too.

For example, a small step I’ve taken toward the lean, buffed body I’d like to inhabit is to buy some workout clothes I really like. As I’m writing this article, I realize it will make a perfect ad to take a picture of those clothes. (Even better: photograph myself wearing them.) Seeing that picture will remind myself of this step I’ve made toward being the kind of person who works out regularly and will motivate me to behave consistently with that self-image.

3. Remind yourself about a public commitment.

Telling someone else about a goal magnifies the pull of the consistency principle because we really want to appear consistent to others. I’ve found it works well to remind myself about the person I’ve told by including their photo in my ad rotation. Each time I see their picture it reminds me to follow through on what I told them I’m doing.

I wrote about how I used a photo of another blogger as part of an ad campaign in How my own ads made me a blogger. Soon after I started seeing his picture daily I signed up for an out-of-town workshop he was offering about the nuts and bolts of the blogging business, and after attending that workshop I sent him the address of my infant blog so he could link to it. In retrospect, those actions created a powerful commitment to a person I respected. I continued to keep his photo in my ad rotation for several more weeks as I was getting started to remind myself of that commitment. Each time I saw the photo I felt the tug of desire to appear consistent to my mentor, and that was very effective in motivating me to write. Thanks, Steve.

4. Show yourself pictures of your successes.

One of the ideas about self-image I mentioned above is “I am person who achieves my goals.” That’s the most important belief of all, because each of the others naturally flows from it. Reinforce this idea as often as you can by including photos that demonstrate your successes in all of the places you advertise.

Other articles in the psychology of persuasion series

  1. The psychology of persuasion – because
  2. The psychology of persuasion – perceptual contrast
  3. The psychology of persuasion – reciprocation
  4. The psychology of persuasion – consistency (you are here)
  5. The psychology of persuasion – social proof
  6. The psychology of persuasion – liking
  7. The psychology of persuasion – authority
  8. The psychology of persuasion – scarcity

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