Consistency is the need to remain true to what we have said, done and thought. Robert Cialdini defines it as “our obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. When we say or do something, it is regarded as a demonstration of what we believe in, that’s why we judge people in this way. We say someone is good, bad, funny or boring, for example, by what they say or do. More importantly, we judge ourselves in this same way. If we say or do something then we feel a need to be consistent with that. We look for ways of backing up what we’ve done, and remaining true to who we’ve shown we are by our actions. One of the most common ways in which we can ensure that our actions are consistent with what we think is through selection-bias. We only select information and examples which back up our own point of view and we discard contrary evidence. Another way of maintaining a mental consistency is through rationalisation – we do something then think of a logical justification for it retrospectively. This justification is not the real reason we did something, but it is a plausible, logical and defendable excuse for our behaviour (if you have children, you will encounter blatant rationalisation regularly, adults are more subtle but still rationalise all the time).
One good example of the need for consistency is the beach theft experiment by Thomas Moriaty, as described by Robert Cialdini. Moriaty or his research assistants would take a towel to the beach and leave their valuables on the towel while they went to swim. Another research would act as a thief and run by, grab the valuables and run away. This was all done in a very visible fashion to ensure that people would see what was occurring. Moriaty found that in the 20 times the experiment was enacted, only four people challenged the thief. However, when Moriaty or an assistant asked someone “please could you watch my things while I swim”, a staggering 19 out of 20 people tried to stop the thief. Moriaty concluded that the need for people to be consistent with their agreement to watch the valuables was the main reason for this increase.
So, what does this tell us? Well, in terms of personal development, it shows how important it is for us to do and say things which will lead our to our true potential. If you want to be a great student but you are watching TV every night instead of studying, simply because you are lacking in will power; when someone confronts you about it, your need to be consistent with your actions means you are likely to say “I don’t care about studying” or “people who study are nerds”, rather than “I know, I’m just lacking in will power”. You will look for reasons and ways to back up what you are doing, even when that is not really what you think. This is why when dealing with kids who are getting in to trouble regularly, the worst thing you can do is challenge them about their behaviour. They will look for ways to rationalise and be consistent with their actions. A better strategy would be to get them to take small steps towards good behaviour and then reward them for the new, positive behaviour. Slowly their self image will change as the need to be consistent with the new behaviour kicks in. Eventually, they will come to link more pain to bad behaviour because it is inconsistent with their self image.
Start today with your own personal development. Start now, if you want to be more healthy, eat an apple – now. If you want to get fit, go run – now. if you want to be a better student, pick up a book – now. Don’t forget to let people see what you are doing, when they ask you why you are eating apples, tell them it’s because you are a fit and healthy person and know better than to eat junk food. Your need for consistency will ensure that this is what you do in the future.
Further Reading: Dr Robert B Cialdini: Influence: The psychology of persuasion