This post is part of a series on how to have influence. Be sure to read parts one and two for more tips on building your influence.
“It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” – Leonardo da Vinci
This post will cover the third part of Influence, by Dr. Cialdini: the commitment and consistency principle.
This principle says that when someone has committed at least partially to an idea, then they are much more likely to follow through on that idea due to the desire to be consistent. Cialdini writes, “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment” (Cialdini, 52).
There are a few things to note about this concept:
1. Commitment is the key. “Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand” (51).
2. Confirmation Bias is the reason. “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” (44). Have you ever been in a debate round with a biased judge who disregarded all of your arguments, selectively chose a minute detail from your opponent, and voted off that? That is likely confirmation bias. Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, wrote, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.” Read this if you want to learn more about confirmation bias and how to fight it.
3. Consistency can be irrational. It is important to note that you can manipulate others into being committed towards an idea even if that idea is false. Conversely, we can become stuck to the same idea, even though its false. Our goal should always to be open-minded and seekers of the truth.
This is the psychology behind building common ground. When you establish common ground with your audience, then they are more likely to follow through with the idea all the way to the end. Persuasion is not achieved when you focus on the areas of disagreement first. Rather, persuasion is achieved when you focus on the areas of agreement first, and use them to diffuse or minimize the areas of disagreement. There are three ways of doing this. We’ll see the first one today, then come back and discuss the second and third in a future post.
Technique 1: Slow and Steady
The “slow and steady” technique gradually builds up commitments little by little. Chinese communist propaganda used on captured American soldiers during the Korean War illustrates this best. The Chinese succeeded in getting nearly all American prisoners to collaborate (53):
“[P]risoners 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” (54).
As an article in American Salesman stated, “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.” Make your audience a customer. You don’t have to start out selling them large amounts of the idea – once they are small customers most of the persuasion has already been achieved.
Cross-examination is the easiest way to create common ground with your opponent. Simply get your opponent to make as many concessions as possible. But start small. It will be much harder for your examinee to disagree.
You can also try the slow and steady trick directly during CX, although it’s not guaranteed to work because your opponent might weasel out by stubbornly refusing to admit any weakness with his/her side.
Q: Can we agree that nationalism is not perfect?
A: Of course.
Q: So there are some problems with nationalism – just like with any ideology?
Q: Obviously, you believe those problems are outweighed by the benefits?
A: Yes. (If they say no, then something is seriously wrong.)
Q: Since we agree there are some problems and that they don’t matter, could you mention what one of them would be?
A: … (forced to admit weakness in own side)
There are a few other ways to establish common ground. We’ll look at them in a future post.