Human beings have an innate drive to be and to appear consistent with our previous behavior, preferences, and statements. Inconsistency is viewed by society as a negative attribute. The person whose actions don’t match his or her stated beliefs, or who commits to one course of action and then takes another, are among other things seen as confused, hypocritical, and indecisive. Normally our devotion to consistency helps us navigate our lives by giving us orientation and preventing us from becoming erratic and disjointed. However, because we benefit so much from behaving consistently, we are at risk of acting that way automatically — even when it isn’t logical — and that makes us vulnerable to others who seek to leverage this behavior for their own benefit.

The constancy framework is a sales and persuasion technique the exploits this often-unthinking impulse to be consistent with past actions and commitments. The objective is to make your prospect verbally commit to a course of action that is beneficial to you and will trap them into either making a purchase or dealing with the internal conflict of being inconsistent, as well as the outward feeling of shame and embarrassment.

As examples, let’s examine two case studies from the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

First, as part of a study on social psychology, two equal groups of Bloomington, Indiana residents were chosen at random to be examined on their willingness to spend three hours volunteering to collect donations for the American Cancer Society. One group was simply called and asked to participate. The second group was first called by a separate organization and asked to take part in a short survey. One of the questions in the survey asked them to predict what they would say if asked to volunteer to help charities like the American Cancer Society. Obviously these residents didn’t want to seem selfish and uncharitable to the person giving the survey, so almost all of them said yes. When they were later called to actually volunteer, there was a 700% increase (!) in participation from this group!

A second example is a classic sales strategy called the “foot-in-the-door technique.” The strategy is simply to get a prospect to make any type of purchase from your company, no matter how small it is to begin with. Some companies even create offers for new customers where the company loses money on the deal in order to make the price as appealing as possible for prospects. The purpose of this transaction is not profit, however. It is commitment. Once the prospect has made one purchase from your company, they will then feel the drive to be consistent with that behavior and future purchases are almost sure to follow. The following quote from American Salesman sums up the point nicely (emphasis ours):

“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.”

The difficulty that we face in obtaining something also has a relationship to our feelings of consistency and commitment. The harder we work for something, the more ownership and investment we feel in our decision and its outcome. This is why fraternities and sororities subject pledges to such intense hazing rituals. They want their new members to be wholly and completely invested in their membership to the group. It has been shown that that new members will say to themselves “My membership to this Greek house must be valuable, because I suffered so much in order to obtain it.”

Notice how, in this assessment, the thing creating the value for the pledge is the suffering. They don’t say that admission into the house is valuable; therefore I am willing to suffer. They look at things retroactively and say that, because I suffered, there must be value here. Surviving the torture of the hazing process has the same effect as making an outward commitment for the pledges. It would be tremendously damaging to their self-image and consistency if they had to admit they suffered and sacrificed immensely for something ultimately not worth very much, so they will do whatever they can to reinforce to themselves that the choice was worth it.

It turns out feelings of ownership over a decision is another important part of the consistency framework. A study of energy consumption habits in Iowa had telling results in this regard. At the beginning of the heating season, one group of energy customers was taught strategies for reducing their energy consumption. Three months in to the study their energy usage records were examined, and as you’d probably expect there wasn’t any change.

A second group of similar customers was given the same tips, but also promised the opportunity to be featured in a newspaper article about energy-conscious members of the community. Sure enough, these residents were motivated by their need for consistency and dramatically reduced their energy consumption. The most interesting part of the study is what happens next, however.

Partway through the winter, the residents were contacted and given a letter of apology and told the newspaper article would not be able to run after all. Since the newspaper article was what motivated the residents to reduce their energy usage in the first place, you would probably expect that when this was taken away they would go back to their old behaviors — but you would be wrong!

In fact, the residents actually increased their consumption even more after the incentive of the press coverage was taken away. The theory for why this happened is that first the incentive got the residents to start behaving in accordance with their new status as energy-efficient homeowners that would show up in the article. Then, as they continued this behavior they came up with more reasons to explain their interest in energy efficiency to support their desire for consistency. However, for as long as they were still going to be receiving publicity in the newspaper, they couldn’t take full ownership of their decision because that additional reward existed. It was only after the promise of publicity was removed that these residents could say to themselves they were acting this way purely out of their own self-interest, and this is what caused the second increase in energy savings after they were told the article would not be able to run.

So now that you see some of the possibilities for how to leverage your prospects’ mental need for commitment and consistency, tell us how you plan to implement this strategy in the comments!