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.