Commitment and Consistency

By | February 14, 2014

Would you be shocked if I told you that, during the Korean War, prisoners of war from the United States gave away military secrets, informed on fellow prisoners, and even publically denounced their country? Would you be even more surprised if I told you they did so without being beaten or threatened?

Robert E. Cialdini, in his book ‘Influence: the psychology of persuasion’, tells us about commitment and consistency.

Cialdini shows us that, once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we have a “nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with that commitment.”

An amazing example is the prison-camp program in Korean War where the Chinese used commitment and consistency pressures to gain compliance from prisoners. Although the American servicemen had been trained to give minimal details (name, rank and number), they gave away much more. How? The Chinese first asked prisoners to “make statements so mildly anti-American or pro-Communist as to seem inconsequential” such as “The United States is not perfect.” Then, once they’d complied with these minor requests, they were gradually pushed to make bigger and bigger declarations. Once they’d agreed that the US was not perfect, they would be pushed to expand on ways in which this was the case – not wanting to be inconsistent, they complied. Then, to remain consistent, they would agree to read their statements aloud in a discussion group, then maybe record it as an anti-American radio broadcast. Finding themselves a “collaborator”, without any physical coercion, the men changed their self-image and performed even more extensive acts of collaboration. The majority of prisoners collaborated at some time. Nobody wanted to appear inconsistent.

The critical act here, apparently, was that they wrote it down. They couldn’t deny the previous step, and pushed themselves into further acts of collaboration to prove their consistency (probably to themselves more than anyone else).

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What does this mean for us? Well, committing to goals by writing them down works better. This is echoed in other examples (such as the sales tactic of getting customers to fill out the sales agreement, rather than the salesperson, which drastically reduces cancellations). In fact, the more public the stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it. This is why a successful approach to dieting is to write a weight-loss goal down and then show it to as many people as possible. We don’t want to appear inconsistent after we have committed to it.

So there is a lot of value in writing down a sprint’s commitment. There is a lot of things going on when we write feedback in a retrospective and read it out to the team. There is more meaning then we maybe acknowledge when, in the daily stand-up, we declare what we will be doing today by moving a ticket into ‘in progress’ in front of our peers.

Don’t underestimate the power of commitment.

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