A few weeks back, we looked at how skilled persuaders made powerful use of reciprocation to gain their ends. This week we consider the force which lies behind commitment. Its source is our instinctive concern to protect our self-respect through fulfilling our commitments. We may make a commitment to ourselves to buttress a good intention. We may make a commitment to another. And we may be persuaded into a commitment by a third party, even though it bears no legal or, often, no moral force. Capitalising on commitment is a handy tool for the professional persuader.

A university professor asked his students if they would like to take part in a discussion group timed for 7am, on a subject of interest to them. Fewer than one in four agreed to attend. He then asked another sample of students if they would like to attend such a meeting, without mentioning the time. More than half agreed. He later told them that the time would be 7am. No student changed their mind, and attendance at the meetings was 95 per cent.

Commitment can, of course, be employed for the best of reasons. Professor Robert Cialdini demonstrated to medical surgeries how they could raise the rate of attendance at future appointments substantially by asking the patient to repeat the time and day of the appointment out loud. It was the stated commitment which created the interior obligation.

A more questionable usage was applied by the Chinese Communists to American prisoners during the Korean war. The inculcation of Communist propaganda was not achieved by force or punishment. It was done by tempting prisoners to write initially mildly critical statements such as: “American society is not perfect.” Rather harmless, and indeed true, one might think. But the commitment to criticism was the first step in a long walk which led to an unusually high percentage of prisoners developing strong sympathies for the Communist Chinese regime and often a preparedness to collaborate.

Perhaps more innocent are the competitions run by companies which ask their customers to complete the sentence: “I like gritted cobblestones for my breakfast because…” However much the entrant thinks they are using invented reasons, the very action of inventing them influences loyalty to the product.

Commitment is often used in the family. We might ask a child to undertake an extra effort at their homework, or to take on extra household tasks. We may think it right to offer a reward for the effort. But great care is needed because studies have shown that the higher the reward the lower the commitment to the task in hand. If the reward is high enough to be regarded as payment that is how it will be experienced. It should only be high enough to be seen as a recognition of success – if commitment is to be upheld. Similarly, heavy punishments for bad behaviour are counter-productive. They lead to the behaviour being avoided to escape punishment, rather than to induce virtue.

A further example of this was a group of students who were asked to write an essay in favour of the conduct of the local police force. They were offered varying sums of money for the job. When this was investigated afterwards, those who were paid the smallest sum were nearly twice as favourable to the police as those who were paid the highest sum.

So people can become committed quite unconsciously. I feel that I have commitment to Sainsbury’s because I have a Nectar card. Don’t tell me that this is absurd. I know. If we buy a particular brand of motor car we reinforce our commitment by looking at the sleek advertisements and by justifying our purchase to our friends.

In a typical routine, a pensions salesman will ask you to say what minimum income you will need. Then he will ask you what your current provision will give. Finally, he will ask you to calculate the gap. Then he will show you how to fill it. Hook, line and sinker! He has helped you to solve a problem which you have identified.

Leaders often obtain commitment through communication. When they have a new strategy in mind they arrange a meeting of those most affected and propose the change to them for discussion. When the participants have agreed, they are committed. And so are those who had reservations: the leader’s gift of discussion is reciprocated by acceptance. What if the group does not agree? Forbid the thought! It rarely happens with a competent leader, and when it does the group are probably right.

Here we are reminded of professional charity raisers. They are often highly paid and they more than earn their money by knowing every trick in the book. If a punter can be induced to make, say, a monthly commitment, and is then praised for it, self-respect may be quite enough to ensure that they stick with their undertaking.

So what is the lesson? Commitment is an excellent way to secure desirable behaviour in others, and in ourselves. Whether we are giving up smoking or have embarked on the Nine First Fridays, we should use its psychological powers to strengthen the will. But be sure that you avoid being seduced into commitment. Many people who want your undertaking do not necessarily have your interests at heart. Don’t give away your future lightly; it’s too valuable for that.


About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Committed

  1. Geordie says:

    I find that I am more and more averse to charities for the reasons you mention. When I give to charities, I always write and say that I don’t want any literature from them. I know what they do and it is a waste of money sending information through the post. I find it particularly irksome when they ignore what I request and they put me on the mailing list. Catholic charities are more guilty of this than others.

    • Quentin says:

      Geordie, I sympathise. And so does my wife, who looks after charities in my household. We generally have a meeting once a year to agree the charities and the amounts. But of course the endless follow up requests are just a nuisance. We know the reason, of course: someone who has already given is more likely to give again than an untried name.
      You may find an answer at You can make your donation (including gift aid) anonymously.

  2. Geordie says:

    I am surprised that this article hasn’t triggered any significany response; especially when our secular society has such a low commitment to anything that requires self-sacrifice; e.g. marriage and the priesthood to mention but two. People seem to be committed to their marriage as long as it makes them feel good. They separate from each other because they are no longer “in love”; their concept of love is completely opposite to the Christian concept of love. Wife or husband and children are not allowed to interfere with the idea of self-fulfilment.
    It’s sad when priests grow cold towards their vocation because it is not what they expected.
    It’s heart-warming to belong to a parish where commitment to fellow parishioners is demonstrated and commented on by non-catholics; even though many of us are beginning to feel our age. I am pleased to say that the young who do come to church seem to have caught the commitment bug and they do a lot of work for the parish but they won’t join the old organisations like the SVP.

  3. Geordie says:

    P.S. Correction: significant

    • Vincent says:

      Your two examples: marriage and the priesthood, have in common the length of time which is likely to be involved. From, say, 25 to 75 any individual will have been changed a great deal by their experiences and the effects of age. While they will have maintained identity, they have in many respects become rather different people – perhaps the sort of people who wouldn’t have chosen that commitment in the first place.
      This seems to me to put a whole deal of emphasis on the active development of a relationship. In marriage this presumably means the determination and ability to change and adjust together. I suppose something analogous must take place between the priest and God. I am certainly no expert on the spiritual life but as far as I can see one’s attitudes can change according to circumstances and experience. So the commitment is as Newman wrote “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

  4. Geordie says:

    Vincent, do you mean that a person is not bound by a commitment made in early life, because he/she has changed over the years?

    • Vincent says:

      On the contrary, you may be glad to hear. There is a need for the commitment to include the commitment to change and adapt the relationship as it inevitably develops over the years. While this is implied in ‘for better, for worse’ it is a dimension which seems rarely to be taken into account.

  5. Mike Horsnall says:

    In fact we are never ‘bound’ by any commitment-particularly the ones mentioned above. We choose and reaffirm our commitments on a daily basis.

    • Horace says:

      This is not my idea of ‘commitment’. As in marriage “For better, for worse, . . . till death us do part” means exactly what it says.
      I was even rather distressed when, on a visit to Cana, I was asked to take part in a service of ‘renewal of Marriage Vows’. How can you renew a commitment?

      • Vincent says:

        Horace, do you stand silent when asked in church to renew your baptismal vows?

      • Horace says:

        Good point Vincent!
        I had never really thought much about my Baptismal Vows.
        I don’t “stand silent” when asked to renew my Baptismal Vows, nor did I when in Cana I was asked to ‘renew my Marriage Vows’ – but it still distresses me.
        Surely a vow is not something that wears out with time! Of course, to be reminded of one’s vow would be quite reasonable – but I suppose it wouldn’t sound so well!

  6. St.Joseph says:

    If a catholic chooses to marry in a Registry Office and make their vows as far as the Church is concerned they won’t be valid for better or worse, as a catholic who divorces can then re-marry in a Catholic Church when they presumably find the right one! Then later on have their marriage blessed.
    Maybe all those who are not sure should do that first!!!

  7. Singalong says:

    From our experience, I would say that lack of commitment in marriage for so many people today, is a huge problem, with very serious consequences for individuals, and for society. It is very widespread and infects the most unexpected individuals. The 1967 no fault divorce law has been an absolute disaster.

  8. mike Horsnall says:

    “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, the song is done the dream is over ,thought I’d something more to say..” Pink Floyd Dark side of the Moon
    Until this mindset passess there will be little change. Its a tricky business for the under 40’s who see relationships,ideologically, as transient in nature and contingent upon outcome. In fact we all do this but don’t own up to it. We all gamble on the genetic lottery of partnerships, few of us hang on till grim death with a partner to whom we are deeply unsuited…should we?

  9. Geordie says:

    Mike Horsnall: you say “We all gamble on the genetic lottery of partnerships, few of us hang on till grim death with a partner to whom we are deeply unsuited…should we?”
    It’s difficult to comment when I’ve never been in that situation. However, are successful marriages a matter of chance? Or are they successful because the couple accept from the start that it is for life and therefore make a considerable effort and many sacrifices in order to make it work. It must be unbearable for spouse who is totally committed and the other walks away when problems arise or an apparently better offer comes along.
    The other factor is, that in a Christian marriage, vows are made to each other and to God. God plays a major role in marriage.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      I think the point I’m trying to make is that we may all use the word ‘commitment’ as something for life -but since that word is tested in the furnace of the days then we cannot predict what the word actually means in terms of time; we like to think of ‘lifelong’ but in fact since we do not know our own limitations ans how those limitations may unfold, then we do not know the strength of our own ‘commitment’.

      • Singalong says:

        When it is marriage or the priesthood, the intention is for life, and we must work at it as Vincent and Geordie have said, and pray for the strength to hang on if things get difficult. This may not be the spirit of the age, but it should remain the spirit of the Church.

        We have to be compassionate and understanding with those who find it too hard to honour their commitments, but we must not lose that ideal.

        It is indeed unbearable, Geordie, and devastating for a committed person whose spouse leaves, and for many others in the wider family even if there are no children to the marriage.

  10. St.Joseph says:

    Weddings in a Registry Office are called Marriage.
    Are we speaking about the Sacrament of Marriage or one between a man and woman legally.
    I believe the Sacrament gives us the Grace to straighten our relationship in marriage.And the regular receiving of the Eucharist. and the Sacrament of Reconciliation to remain faithful.
    I don’t wish to undermine those who are not religious-or not of much faith-they can be just as loyal’ depending how strong their love is and what is important in their marriage-such as children.
    But as commented before there are impossible cases and we ought not to judge them!
    There are some who believe if it does not work out -get a divorce, also pregnancy can can make someone marry as a responsibility . That will fail eventually maybe!
    I believe the government was thinking of making divorce more difficult and I think the Church will not marry a couple until the baby is 6 months. .

  11. Iona says:

    Like Quentin and Geordie, I resent the way charities which I have given to hang on and keep asking for more. Some I give to regularly, – OK – others I might give a one-off donation to, and gift-aid it, but as I can’t gift-aid without giving my address I don’t, and so they don’t get my donation at all.
    The nature of marriage has been much discussed recently (at least in Christian publications) because of the likelihood of “Gay marriage” passing into law, and the point has been made that marriage as an institution long predates the Church. A man and woman with no religious affiliation getting married in a registry office are considered by the Church to be validly married (I know this because I’m a convert since marriage, and we married in a registry office, and we were not obliged to get married all over again when I became a Catholic).
    But is such a marriage sacramental, and does God “play a role in it”?

  12. St.Joseph says:

    I think if a catholic marries in a Registry Office-it is a different situation than a non-catholic getting married in one.
    As a non-catholic one is not obliged by the law of the Church-when one converts then they don’ t have to marry again I think Do you know what the situation is with the husband or wife that doesn’t convert? I have often wondered.I would expect te marriage would have a blessing..
    If a catholic marries in an Anglican Church I believe a Catholic priests need to be present for the blessing.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Yes, I think St Joseph is right though there is a rite of blessing of the marriage. As to the sacramentality then the answer woud probably be that the marriage you had was sacramental but not a sacrament as far as the Catholic Church would be concerned….depends I guess on whether you married a catholic or not. Presumably you chatted all this over with your priest at the time.

  13. Iona says:

    Husband was not a catholic. Priest simply said we were already married as far as the Church was concerned. We did have a blessing, but only because i specifically asked for it.

    • Mike Horsnall says:

      It was the same for us.

      • St.Joseph says:

        My late husband when he was baptised in a Methodist church his Auntie took him outside because he was crying. Although he had a certificate the priest thought he would have to be conditionally baptised(if that is the right word) as he could not become a catholic, so he was baptised by the priest on the evening when he was received into the church 3 years before he died. His mother thought he did not receive the right baptism with water.
        I think a person who is not a Christian can not get married to a Catholic in Church.Someone may know if that has been changed.
        One of the messages of Our Lady, I can’t remember if it was Fatima said ‘It is ‘better’ if one does not marry outside their own faith where difficulties can arise,,as I know myself.
        But love can overcome that sometimes!! My husband was very supportive.after a while!
        After looking at so many other religions and reading-he would put me to shame sometimes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s