by Niall Doherty

There’s a knock on your front door. You answer it to find a very attractive young woman (or man, depending on your sexual preference) holding a clipboard and asking if you have five minutes to help with a survey.

“Well I was just in the middle of an intense workout,” says you. “But sure, come on in.”

Turns out the survey is about social habits. How often do you go to see a movie? How often do you go to the theater? Do you usually eat at home or at restaurants? Budget eateries or fine dining?

Naturally, you exaggerate a little so as to impress the asker.

“Why yes, I eat out quite regularly. I love restaurants with a nice view and a European ambiance and imported wines. A perfect evening for me would be a three-course meal at just such an establishment followed by balcony seats at the opera.”

“Great,” responds the hot young thing. “Let me see here… Yes, from the information you’ve already given me, I’m pleased to say that you could save up to twelve hundred dollars a year by joining Clubamerica! A small membership fee entitles you to discounts on most of the activities you’ve mentioned. Surely someone as socially vigorous as yourself would want to take advantage of the tremendous savings our company can offer on all the things you’ve already told me you do.”

Weapon of influence

The above scenario comes from Robert Cialdini’s excellent book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which describes the six most common “weapons of influence” used by salespeople.1 Here’s a quick list of all six:

  • Reciprocation
  • Commitment and Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post, the primary weapon deployed by the attractive young man (or woman) in the intro was Commitment and Consistency. And when it first happened to Cialdini, he fell for it:

I remember feeling my stomach tighten […] I couldn’t see a way out. I had been cornered by my own words. To decline her offer at that point would have meant facing a pair of distasteful alternatives: If I tried to back out by protesting that I was not actually the man-about-town I had claimed to be during the interview, I would come off a liar; but trying to refuse without that protest would make me come off a fool for not wanting to save twelve hundred dollars. So I bought the entertainment package, even though I knew I had been set up so that the need to be consistent with what I had already said would snare me.

I’ll get back to you… eventually

Consistency is good. Foolish consistency is bad. That’s the main point I want to get across here.

Another example to illustrate this comes from Ramit Sethi. I heard recently that he once made a promise to himself and his readers that he would reply to every email received within 24 hours. This was a good policy for a while, but then Ramit’s site grew so popular that his inbox got out of control, and he simply could not reply to everyone who emailed him within 24 hours. Trying to stay true to his initial promise at that point was foolish and impractical. And Ramit quickly realized it, eventually changing his policy and thus relieving himself of a ton of stress.

Around the world without flying

Two years ago I decided to circumnavigate the world without flying. To date I’ve traveled east from Ireland to Hong Kong without stepping foot on an airplane. But I’ll be honest: sometimes this no flying thing is a pain in the ass. On balance, the journey is still worthwhile and enjoyable for me, but I have asked myself several times what it would take for me to call it quits. I could be stubborn and see it through no matter what, but I think that would be falling victim to foolish consistency, trying to stay true to a promise I made two years ago.

So I’m keeping my options open. If some fantastic opportunity comes along that would require me to fly, I’ll probably take it. Otherwise I’d be the guy buying an entertainment package he doesn’t want for fear of appearing a fool or a fibber.

Speaking of which…

How to say no

It’s one thing to realize that you’ve been foolishly consistent in private; there’s no embarrassment if nobody knows you stumbled, so it’s relatively easy to change course. But how do you handle the situation with the hot salesperson, the type of situation where you’re sure to appear inconsistent to others if you suddenly bust out a u-turn?

Thankfully, Cialdini offers some great advice. You simply name the game. In the case of the hot salesperson, your response would be along these lines:

“I see what you’re doing here. What I said during your fake survey doesn’t matter. It would be stupid of me to spend money on something I don’t want, and I have it on excellent authority, direct from my stomach, that I don’t want your entertainment plan. Surely, someone as intelligent as yourself would be able to understand that.”

Consider your consistencies

A question to ask yourself regularly: Does it still make sense for me to keep doing this?

This might be answering every email within 24 hours, or working 9-to-5, or continuing with your studies, or staying in a relationship. Staying true to any of those decisions can be smart, but not simply because you decided it was smart a year or two ago.

You change, circumstances change. As such, your decisions are entitled to change accordingly. Guilt-free.

Show 1 footnote

  1. And by salespeople and I don’t just mean people who try to sell you a product or service in exchange for cash. I intend the term to include anyone who wishes to influence the behavior of others, whether that be in a relationship, an office, a courtroom, or pretty much anywhere.