Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Tapping the Power of Commitment

I read the book Fostering Sustainable Behavior by Doug McKenzie-Mohr years ago and it has stuck with me since. The stories of community activists discovering ways to engage people are really fascinating. So I recently signed up for Dr. McKenzie-Mohr’s weekly e-newsletter, which he packs with new discoveries since publishing the book. Today’s newsletter builds on one of my favorite stories from the book where people agreed to outlandish commitments after making a much smaller commitment to the same cause.

Below is the text of Dr. McKenzie-Mohr’s e-newsletter from today – enjoy!


Imagine being asked to place a large, ugly, obtrusive billboard with the wording "drive carefully" on your front lawn. When a researcher posing as a volunteer made precisely this request, numerous residents in a Californian neighborhood flatly declined. That they refused is hardly surprising, especially since they were shown a picture of the billboard almost completely obscuring the view of another house. However, what is surprising is that fully 76% of another group of residents in this study agreed to have the sign placed on their lawn. Why would over three-fourths of one group agree, while virtually everyone in the other group sensibly declined? The answer lies in something that happened to the second group before this outlandish request was made. The residents who agreed in droves to have this aberration placed on their lawn were previously asked if they would display in the windows of their cars or homes a small, three-inch sign that said, "be a safe driver." This request was so innocuous that virtually everyone agreed to it. However, agreeing to this trivial request subsequently greatly increased the likelihood that they would consent to have the billboard placed on their lawn.

Are these findings a mere anomaly? Apparently not. In another study, a researcher, identifying himself as a member of a consumer group, called and asked householders if he could ask them a few questions about their soap preferences. A few days later, the same researcher called back asking for a much larger favor, "Could I send five or six people through your house to obtain an inventory of all the products in the house?" The caller carefully explained that this "inventory" would require searching through all of their drawers and closets, etc. Having agreed to the smaller request only a few days earlier, many householders apparently felt compelled to agree with this much larger and more invasive request. Indeed, over 50% agreed, more than twice as many relative to householders who had not received the prior request.

These surprising findings have now been replicated in a variety of settings. In each case, individuals who agreed to a small initial request were far more likely to agree to a subsequent larger request. For example:

·      When asked if they would financially support a recreational facility for the disabled, 92% donated if they had previously signed a petition in favor of the facility, compared with 53% for those who had not been asked to sign the petition.

·       Residents of Bloomington, Indiana, were called and asked if they would consider, hypothetically, spending three hours working as a volunteer collecting money for the American Cancer Society. When these individuals were called back three days later by a different individual, they were far more likely to volunteer than another group of residents who had not been asked the initial question (31% versus 4%, respectively).

·       A sample of registered voters was approached one day before a U.S. presidential election and asked, "Do you expect you will vote or not?" All agreed that they would vote. Compared to voters who were not asked this simple question, their likelihood of voting increased by 41%.

·       Ending a blood-drive telephone call with the query, "We'll count on seeing you then, OK?" increased the likelihood of individuals showing up from 62% to 81%.

·       Individuals who were asked to wear a lapel pin publicizing the Canadian Cancer Society were nearly twice as likely to donate than those who were not asked to wear the pin.

·       When residents of a college community were asked to sign promise cards to use crosswalks and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks when driving, crosswalk usage increased by 10%, and yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks increased by 21%.

Understanding Commitment

Why does agreeing to a small request lead people to agree subsequently to a much larger one? When individuals agree to a small request, it often alters the way they perceive themselves. When they sign a petition favoring the building of a new facility for the disabled, the act of signing subtly changes their attitudes on the topic. Through a process that Darryl Bem refers to as self-perception, they come to view themselves as the type of person who supports initiatives for the disabled. When asked later to comply with the more significant request, donating, there is strong internal pressure to behave "consistently." Similarly, saying that you "think" you would volunteer for the Cancer Society, vote in an election, give blood or wear a lapel pin, alters your attitudes and increases the likelihood that you will later act in a way that is consistent with your new beliefs.

Consistency is an important character trait. Those who behave inconsistently are often perceived as untrustworthy and unreliable. In contrast, individuals whose deeds match their words are viewed as being honest and having integrity. The need for all of us to behave consistently is underscored by an intriguing study on a New York City beach at a time in which smoking (and radios) were still common. In this study, a researcher posing as a sunbather put a blanket down some five feet from a randomly selected sunbather. He then proceeded to relax on the blanket for a few minutes while listening to his radio. When he got up, he said to the person beside him, "Excuse me, I'm here alone and have no matches ... do you have a light?" He then went for a walk on the beach, leaving the blanket and radio behind. Shortly afterward, another researcher, posing as a thief, stole the radio and fled down the beach. Under these circumstances, the thief was pursued 4 times out of 20 stagings. However, the results were dramatically different when the researcher made a modest request prior to taking the walk. When he asked the person beside him to "watch his things," in 19 out of the 20 stagings the individual leapt up to pursue the thief. When they caught him some restrained him, others grabbed the radio back, while yet others demanded an explanation. Almost all acted consistently with what they had said they would do.

The need to behave consistently is further supported by findings that a substantial amount of time can pass between the first and second requests and that a different individual can make the second request. That considerable time can pass between the two requests provides further evidence that complying with the initial request alters how we see ourselves in an enduring way. Furthermore, we will comply with a second request initiated by a new person, indicating that these changes are not transitory; otherwise, we would only feel bound to comply if the second request were made by the individual who had made the initial request.