When the worm turns How we reinforce past choices

Tipping point: sometimes an outcome is so bad that you flip to become a vociferous critic. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

David Rawlings poses the question: if the reality of “control” turns out to be different from the promise will people change their minds?

Left-wing or right-wing. Socialist or capitalist. Brexiter or Remainer. These labels represent sets of beliefs that tend to be passionately held. So much so that they become badges of identity. They say something about who you are. Hence it’s hardly surprising that you hold on to them so tenaciously.

But it’s not just the big issues that we resist changing our positions on. We all share a remarkable preference for behaving in keeping with whatever we’ve done before, irrespective of how much thought went into the original decision or even how sensible it turned out to be.

Robert Cialdini (pictured) has famously written about the “science of influence”, a fascinating account, backed up by the astonishing results of years of research. One of his Six Principles is that of “consistency”, which is our tendency to make choices that reinforce, or are consistent with, commitments we’ve already made. It may not sound too surprising that we do this, but Cialdini gives examples from research that take the principle to extremes.

In one experiment, researchers knocked on doors and asked householders if they’d be willing to display an advertisement, in the form of a small card, in their window. A proportion of people agreed. A few weeks later, the researchers were out again and contacting a wider group, including those who had been approached in part one, but also others who had not. This time they asked the subjects if they would be willing to have a large advertising banner positioned in their front gardens! Not surprisingly, virtually all of those being contacted for the first time declined. But amazingly, many of the first group, who had agreed to display the small card, also agreed to host an intrusive banner.

This (and other) experiments showed that people can be “conditioned” to make choices that they wouldn’t otherwise have made.

And the principle of consistency also shows itself in the way we tend to advocate the things we’ve invested in, irrespective of their true qualities. No-one wants to be seen as having made a bad decision so we’ll continue to look for the positives in, say, a product we’ve bought long after the faults become apparent.

But sometimes the outcome has been so bad that it crosses your threshold of tolerance and you flip to become a vociferous critic. “Don’t make my mistake!” you say whenever you get the chance.

In the physical world, many systems exhibit a “switching” behaviour where a seemingly stable state suddenly becomes unstable and there’s a jump to a new equilibrium.

In the 1960s, the French mathematician René Thom studied the different mathematical forms that allowed this kind of “catastrophic” behaviour. He described seven types of catastrophe. But they all share the characteristic that a smooth change in some parameter can, at a certain point, result in a discontinuous change in some other property.

You’d see this kind of behaviour, for example, if you measured the viscosity of water at different temperatures. As it cools, water becomes progressively more viscous (not much, but some) until at 0°C the viscosity suddenly becomes infinite. The water is no longer a liquid. In Thom’s terms, a catastrophic change has occurred.

And these jumps are common in human behaviour. We accommodate changes that challenge our beliefs. The principle of consistency is very powerful and, as in the example of the advertising banners, people will put up with an incredible amount of inconvenience before they will act against a prior decision. If the challenge is too great though, there’s a catastrophic shift and our language contains many expressions for this happening:

  • The straw that broke the camel’s back…
  • At the end of my tether…
  • Reached breaking point…
  • So far and no further…
  • That crossed the line…

These and many others all describe situations where a succession of increments, each tolerable, suddenly add up to an intolerable sum.

The response to crossing this threshold of tolerance may be very vigorous, even violent. But it might not be expressed at all, at least not immediately. If the shift is from a state of “coping” to one of “not coping” then the individual could either explode or just quietly break down.

The revolt of the “left behind” has been interpreted as a section of society being pushed to the point of changing their lifelong allegiances. The European Union (EU) referendum was an opportunity for them to make a statement. Now, will Brexiters eventually change their minds when the reality of “control” turns out to be different from the promise? Or was joining the EU in the first place itself the big example of initial tolerance being tried beyond endurance by later developments?

In leadership, you can take people in directions they don’t really want to go provided it’s in small enough steps. But eventually they’ll balk when the gap becomes too great.


rawlings-vb2Email: david@changeworkcoaching.com

Robert Cialdini Image Credit: Eilyjaneaz, via Wikimedia Commons
and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence