Thursday, April 18, 2013

Influence, Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Commitment and Consistency

People are driven to appear consistent with their prior actions.  This is such a powerful lever compared to many of the other compliance techniques discussed in the book, because a seemingly tiny upfront action can commit someone to a consistent, but much larger, action later.

Getting people to take a stand -- to make a statement on record -- will compel them to be consistent with their statements later on.  This is especially terrifying because we are so accustomed to telling little lies about our true preferences, in matters that seem of no immediate import.

Suppose you want to recruit volunteers for the American Cancer Society.  The direct approach is to call people up and ask them to volunteer a few hours of their time.  The sneaky, evil, clever, terrifying approach is to first ask them to predict what they would say if asked to volunteer a few hours of their time. A few days later, you call back and ask them to volunteer.  Volunteer rates go up 700%.  The original request appears to be a no-strings survey, so what's the harm in pretending you are a little more willing than you really are?  Only later does the real request come, and by then many people feel compelled to be consistent with their original statements.

Or, consider this terrifying toy trick: In the lead-up to the holiday season, Dastardly Toy Co runs a slew of ads hyping Toy X so all the kids go crazy about it.  They beg their parents for Toy X, explicitly or implicitly extracting holiday promises.  But Dastardly Toy Co intentionally stocks only limited quantities of the toy for the holidays.  Most parents are forced to buy their children some other Toy Y instead.

You have probably observed these manufacturing shortages around the holidays before.  I have seen several economic explanations of them: that production costs are too high to match the insane ramp up in demand, or that shortages cause hype which is good for brand image in the long term.

Cialdini's far more devious explanation is that, immediately after the holidays, Dastardly Toy Co runs another slew of ads for Toy X, at which point the children are absolutely desperate to have it.  They run to their parents.  "It's all I wanted for Christmas!  You promised!"  And what can a parent say to that?  The commitment is already made, the parent has to be consistent.  In this way, Dastardly Toy Co manages to keep sales high in January when, really, everyone is sick of buying toys.

An underlying assumption here is that, by reducing the supply of Toy X, Dastardly Toy Co doesn't lose many customers in December -- rather, they mostly just buy different toys from Dastardly Toy Co.  This makes sense if

  • there are few toy suppliers, possibly colluding to jointly limit the stocks of their most popular items, or
  • Toy X has obvious substitutes that are also made by Dastardly Toy Co. For example, if Toy X is a certain Lego set, then the obvious thing to buy when it's out of stock is another Lego set.  Whereas, what do you buy when the stores run out of those creepy Furbies?

This theory makes some empirical predictions that could be fun to test.

Cialdini also discusses the power of public commitment.  Juries are much more likely to be hung if initial votes are done by show of hands rather than secret ballots.  I have said before that you are much more likely to convince someone of your opinion if you don't force them to explicitly spell out their position at the beginning of the debate.

There's a lot more stuff in this chapter, but I'll stop here.  I suspect the urge for consistency must be especially strong with economists.  Philosophically, economists are pretty open-minded about what a person's preferences may be, but they demand the person behave in a manner consistent with those preferences.  Which implies, as a corollary, that those actions ought to be consistent with each other.  Which implies that inconsistency is evidence of failure to optimize.  I'm not saying preferences aren't allowed to change, but absent a reason for change, actions that contradict each other are evidence of a thinking mistake.  (The horror!)


  1. Is it appearing to be consistent to others or is it appearing to be consistent to oneself? In the survey example I can imagine being comfortable being inconsistent as long as I reasonably believed that no one else knew I was being inconsistent.

    Also I am taking this post as a challenge. I'm going to attempt to be honestly inconsistent instead of dishonestly consistent from here forward. It will probably have the positive effect of decreasing how much I lie about my willingness to volunteer.

  2. Robert, good question. I would say it's both. The urge to appear consistent in front of others is especially strong. But surely we are also influenced to be consistent with our own private actions.

    If nothing else, we use consistency with our own past choices as a heuristic for how to behave now. It could also be argued that the sunk cost fallacy is an example of consistency in action.