As I write this I’m sitting in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the busiest hubs in the world. While I was waiting for my second flight of the day a young man sitting across from me innocently asked, “Would you mind watching my things while I use the restroom?” Being the nice fellow that I am I told him I would.
I don’t know if he realized it but his simple question engaged a powerful principle of influence – consistency. This psychological concept highlights the reality that humans feel internal psychological pressure and external social pressure to be consistent in what they say and do.
Think about the last time you gave your word to someone but had to back out. How did you feel? If you were like most people I talk with you would use words like bad, awful, guilty, or terrible to describe how you felt. If you could avoid feeling bad, awful, guilty, or terrible I bet you would and that’s what compels you to keep your word even when it’s difficult.
Another thought to consider – have you ever said “Yes” to someone’s request even though you didn’t want to? Maybe you felt trapped so you agreed to whatever they asked. We’ve all been there and I’d wager you probably followed through on your word more often than not in situations like that.
In his best selling book Influence Robert Cialdini sites a study that shows just how powerful the principle of consistency can be when it comes to asking for a favor. An experiment was run at a beach where someone would lay down a blanket and portable radio. After a few minutes the person would take a walk down the beach without interacting with anyone around them. Then, while they were away, someone else associated with the experiment would “steal” the radio. Under these conditions only four times out of 20 did anyone intervene to let the person know that wasn’t their radio.
Later the experiment was repeated with all conditions being the same except before heading off for a stroll the beach goer would ask someone sitting near them, “Would you please watch my things?” Everyone agreed to do so. And how did it change the behavior of those bystanders? In this scenario 19 out of 20 intervened and some tried to physically restrained the would-be thief. A simple question and nearly five times more people took action!
Many of the principles of influence we naturally engage without thinking because we learn for example that it’s good to give before asking for a favor (reciprocity), following the crowd (consensus) typically leads to a better result, or asking someone to watch your things (consistency) lessens the likelihood that something will end up missing. These are human behaviors we all engage in to one degree or another.
However, to become a master persuader you can’t always rely on what you’ve always done or simple intuition. To excel in persuasion you need to consciously think about which principles are naturally available before you make a request otherwise you’re probably missing opportunities to be even more effective went it comes to influencing people.
When the young man returned he thanked me and I jokingly told him, “I only had to fight off three people for you.” It was a win-win because he got his goods and I got a great real-life story to share with you.