Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is Robert Cialdini’s 1984 book discussing what he calls the six fundamental psychological principles of compliance: consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.
The conclusion to Cialdini’s book points out why, in this increasingly complex world, resisting attempts at “enforced compliance” (deception) through these key principles is as important as recognising and responding to truthful instances of their implementation:
Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is characteristic of modern life. More and more frequently, we will find ourselves in the position of the lower animalsâ€”with a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment. Unlike the animals, whose cognitive powers have always been relatively deficient, we have created our own deficiency by constructing a radically more complex world. But the consequence of our new deficiency is the same as that of the animals’ long-standing one. When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it.
When those single features are truly reliable, there is nothing inherently wrong with the shortcut approach of narrowed attention and automatic response to a particular piece of information. The problem comes when something causes the normally trustworthy cues to counsel us poorly, to lead us to erroneous actions and wrongheaded decisions.
To help control and manage progress on a difficult or long-term goal, we often split that goal into many individual subgoals. Once we begin to complete these subgoals, our continued motivation and progress toward the main, or superordinate, goal can be compromised.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2006 shows that by putting people in mind of their subgoal successes or on their main goal commitment causes drastic differences in their future effort (the latter is better):
The authors show that when people consider success on a single subgoal, additional actions toward achieving a superordinate goal are seen as substitutes and are less likely to be pursued. In contrast, when people consider their commitment to a superordinate goal on the basis of initial success on a subgoal, additional actions toward achieving that goal may seem to be complementary and more likely to be pursued.
via Derek Sivers (Yep, via the post I linked-to in my previous post. I felt that this needed its own post as I wanted to provide a balanced view on the study, not just saying, somewhat incorrectly, “success on one sub-goal [â€¦] reduced efforts on other important sub-goals”.)
Conventional wisdom for setting goals and following through on intentions is to make a public statement of intent in order to bring about some accountability. However the research on the theory is mixed.
Derek Sivers summarises a number of studies that suggest we should keep our goals private if we want to remain motivated (especially if that goal is contributing to a perceived or hoped-for ‘identity’):
Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.
In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now [â€¦] a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.
NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer has been studying this since his 1982 book Symbolic Self-Completion (pdf article here) – and recently published results of new tests in a research article, When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?
Four different tests of 63 people found that those who kept their intentions private were more likely to achieve them than those who made them public and were acknowledged by others.
Once you’ve told people of your intentions, it gives you a “premature sense of completeness.”
The research article in question concludes that “Identity-related behavioral intentions that had been noticed by other people were translated into action less intensively than those that had been ignored” and that “when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity”.
Deaths in the United States resulting from “fairly mundane personal decisions” have risen from a rate of around 10% of all premature deaths a century ago to 44.5% today*. This shift suggests that by improving our decision-making abilities, we can dramatically reduce a main cause of premature death: ourselves.
44.5% of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions â€“ decisions that involving among others smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use, and unsafe sexual behavior. [â€¦]
Using the same method to examine causes of death in 1900, [the researcher, Ralph Keeney] finds that during this time only around 10% of premature deaths were caused by personal decisions. Compared to our current 44.5% of premature deaths caused by personal decisions, it seems that on this measure of making decisions that kill ourselves we have “improved” (of course this means that we actually got much worse) dramatically over the years. And no, this is not because weâ€™ve become a nation of binge-drinking, murderous smokers, it’s largely because the causes of death, like tuberculosis and pneumonia (the most common causes of death in the early 20th century) are far more rare these days, and the temptation and our ability to make erroneous decisions (think about driving while texting) has increased dramatically.
What this analysis means is that instead of relying on external factors to keep us alive and healthy for longer, we can (and must) learn to rely on our decision-making skills in order to reduce the number of dumb and costly mistakes that we make.
*Looking exclusively at 15- to 64-year-olds, this becomes 5% in 1900 and 55% in 2000, according to Thomas Goetz.
Postdecisional dissonance–an extremely close relative of both post-purchase rationalisation and the choice-supportive bias–is the phenomenon whereby once we have made a decision we perceive our chosen option as the most attractive choice and the discarded alternatives as less attractive, regardless of the evidence.
SomeÂ intriguingÂ recent research suggests that the physical act of cleaning one’s hands helps us rationally evaluate our past decisions–cleaning our hands cleans our minds, too.
After choosing between two alternatives, people perceive the chosen alternative as more attractive and the rejected alternative as less attractive. This postdecisional dissonance effect was eliminated by cleaning one’s hands. Going beyond prior purification effects in the moral domain, physical cleansing seems to more generally remove past concerns, resulting in a metaphorical “clean slate” effect.
The article is behind the Science paywall but there is an interesting conversation in the comments of Overcoming Bias (via).