Why we can be persuaded to do stupid things

Published: Jun 03 , 2013
Author: Alan Smith

There is no doubt that people are strange. That includes you and especially me!

A number of studies into social psychology in the 1960's sought to look at how this strangeness affects the way we live our lives and conduct our affairs.

In 1966 experimenters went door to door in a suburban neighbourhood asking residents if they would agree to a huge advertisement reading, "drive safely" being erected in their garden. They were shown a picture of how it would look. Just so you know the photo showed a lovely home almost totally obscured by the billboard.

Astoundingly 17% of those asked said yes.

Why? Who knows? More interestingly was the subset of the group who 2 weeks earlier had been asked to display a small 3-inch square notice saying, "drive safely" in their car windscreen. 76% of this sub group had agreed to the massive billboard.

It seems that they had bought into the concept, and that having done so they were far, far more likely to go with the obliteration of their front garden.

I like to think I am public spirited and would likely have bought into the 3 inch sticker, but what I find disconcerting is the fact that it might have persuaded me to carry on to the less rational decision. Am I an oddball? Not looking for an answer, by the way.

The phenomenon at play is the trick known as 'incremental commitment'. Deep down we value consistency almost above anything else. Once we have committed ourselves to a cause, relationship or deal it takes a lot to move to a contradictory view.

Sometimes, it seems we act contrary to our best interests in order to be consistent to others or ourselves.

Knowing this maybe will help us put distance between what we have done in the past and how it influences our activity in the future.

Business relationships based on what we did last year, or those that rely on us narrowly focusing only on the trajectory we have so far followed may miss opportunities and make us behave in irrational ways.

By all means invest in the relationships you have, but check on their performance from time to time, with an objective mind.

When we are not acting in our own best interests, the first person we need to negotiate with is ourselves.

Written by Alan Smith, Scotwork UK

PS The above article explains a little known phenomena that the motor trade and many other brand driven businesses rely on heavily. Once someone has bought (committed to) a product or "brand" they unconsciously seek to validate their purchase ie prove it was the right one. For this reason alone many people will often buy exactly the same vehicle again just to prove that their decision the first time round was correct. I would like to think that my purchase of the albeit new model of the same car last year was based on rationale decision making and benchmarking, I did after all check out several other marques and models but who knows for sure?  I do have one colleague, probably one of the smartest people I know, who has bought the same expensive European vehicle several times over despite the last two spending more time in the workshop being repaired under warranty than they spent on the road, one was completely replaced it was so bad!

Mark Simpson, Scotwork NZ


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Alan Smith
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