Car dealers. Marketing executives. Phone companies. Waiters. Teachers. What do we all have in common? We all want people to do what we want. Buy stuff, read stuff, eat stuff, do stuff, don’t do stuff, do stuff differently.
It’s not always easy, though. Usually the stuff you (we) want people to do is stuff they aren’t already doing. Or if they are doing it, they aren’t doing it enough, or in quite the right way. We all know that though. So, why this blog?
Well, there I was, idly flicking through Freakonomics Radio, when I came across an episode called How To Get Anyone To Do Anything. Always a sucker for a quick fix (Get rock hard abs fast without exercise or diet? Yes please!) I dived in.
The episode was an interview with Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the psychology of persuasion. First published in 1984 and, I’m told, a classic of the genre, it was updated in 2021, hence the podcast. In it, Cialdini takes host Stephen Dubner through some of the key principles that people he calls “compliance professionals” use to get us to do those things they want us to, but which we probably wouldn’t without some gentle encouragement.
It was good. So I bought the book. And in this short series of blogs, I’m going to outline some of Cialdini’s theories and how they might be applicable to various roles in school. He identifies seven “levers of influence” but I’ll stick to four: liking, social proof, authority, and commitment and consistency.
A couple of disclaimers: I haven’t interrogated Cialdini’s sources, nor sought corroboration for his claims. I also note from various reviews that lots of other people have said and written similar things, and no doubt some have contradicted them. Be that as it may, I found lots of the book was relatable and applicable to teaching, and I thought you might too. Here goes.
Part 4: Commitment and Consistency
In this chapter, Cialdini explains how you can use the power of commitment to encourage the behaviour you’re after.
The basic premise is this: “Once we make a choice or take a stand, we encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to think and behave consistently with that commitment.” So far, so expected. But here’s the bit I really like: “Moreover, those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our decision.”
Cialdini gives lots of examples to back this up, but I’ll summarise just one. Residents of a California neighbourhood were asked to have a billboard with the words “Drive Carefully” placed on their front lawn. The sign was enormous, blocking much of the view of the house, and looked awful. Only 17% agreed to have the sign, apart from one group where the figure was a whopping 76%. Two weeks earlier, that group had received a visit from a volunteer worker, who asked them to display a three inch square sign that said, “Be a Safe Driver.” It was such a little request, and so hard to refuse, that almost everyone agreed. But, fascinatingly, this seemed to make them far more likely to comply with another, much more intrusive, request – to host the big Drive Carefully sign.
Even more remarkably, other homeowners were asked to sign a petition to “keep California beautiful.” Who wouldn’t do that? A couple of weeks later, a volunteer popped round to the same homeowners and asked them to have the big Drive Carefully signs in their front gardens. About half agreed, even though their recent commitment had been to a different public service topic.
The researchers concluded that signing the beautification petition caused people to see themselves as public-spirited people who acted on their civic principles (and who knows, maybe they actually were). So, when asked to do something else public spirited, “they complied in order to be consistent with their newly formed self-images.” As the researchers put it, once someone has agreed to a request, “he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing…who takes action on things he believes in, who co-operates on good causes.”
So, if we can get people to commit to something, they may well alter their subsequent behaviour to fit in with the view of themselves that they, and others, now have. Helpfully, Cialdini goes on to explain how these commitments can be made most effective. They must be active, public, effortful and, most important of all, freely chosen. Let’s take each in term (briefly, promise).
- Active. Basically, this means write it down. A written commitment provides physical evidence of the intention. Not only does this ensure we can’t deny making the commitment, it can also persuade those around us that the commitment reflects what we really think. This brings in the awesome power of social proof (remember Part 2? Course you do!): Cialdini notes that shortly after hearing their neighbours considered them charitable, people gave much more money to a fundraiser. So, a written commitment can change our view of ourselves, and others’ view of us, which in turn reinforces the likelihood that we will behave in ways congruent with our commitment.
- Public. “Whenever one takes a stand visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person…The more public a stand, the more reluctant we are to change it.” That’s why we’re always being told that we are more likely to stick to goals if we tell others about them. I won’t linger on this one. You know it’s true. It’s also why you love that quotation from JM Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” Gives you a lovely get-out.
- Effortful. “The evidence is clear: the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater its ability to influence the attitudes and actions of those who made it.” Cialdini describes a frankly eye-watering event that marks entry to adulthood for males in a particular African tribe, and the brutal initiation ceremonies common to a number of American university fraternities. In both cases, he says, “the severity of an initiation ceremony heightens the newcomer’s commitment to the group.” To be honest (and we saw in Part 3 how important honesty is in gaining trust) I think imposing frat-house style entry requirements for your new Y7s might be going a bit far, but making it seem like a Big Deal to join your school might perform a similar function. I’ve referenced the Michaela School’s extensive pre-joining bootcamp for pupils before, but this could be another reason why it works so well.
- Freely chosen. “We accept inner responsibility for a behaviour when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure.” An external stimulus to act (or not act), such as a reward or threat of a sanction, might influence behaviour but, says Cialdini, we won’t feel committed to the particular act. In fact, such external pressures could even have the reverse effect, causing people to be reluctant to perform the behaviour in their absence. (“There’s no reward, this time, for completing my homework by the deadline? I won’t bother, then.”) If Cialdini is right, this doesn’t necessarily mean allowing pupils simply to choose what to do. It means giving them a chance to make a relevant decision. He cites a study which showed that young children told not to play with robots because it was wrong and because if they did they’d be in trouble, complied at the time. But six weeks later, given no further instruction and in the absence of the person who’d spoken to them before, almost all of them played with the robot. A similar group, told only that it was wrong to play with the robot, eschewed it to the same extent as the initial group, and did so again six weeks later. The researchers concluded that this was because the children felt they had made the decision not to play with the robot, rather than not doing so for fear of a telling off. I suspect quite a lot of secondary school age children, at least, would view this as “treating us like adults, not children.” So perhaps don’t say, “Don’t do this or you’ll be in detention,” but, “Don’t do this, because it runs against the core values you signed up to when you made that active, public and effortful commitment to them.”
One more piece of Cialdini advice. Remind people of the commitments they’ve made. This helps restore the commitment, but also prods people to recall that they are the kind of person who makes that kind of commitment, and therefore want to live up to that standard.
Two quick examples to prove these points. The first stems from Tom Bennett’s Running the Room. You know those classroom rules we get the kids to agree to at the start of the year? Be on time, bring your book, don’t interrupt, do your homework, etc. All well and good, but, Tom says, unless we remind people of them, and revisit (including practise) them regularly, they will get forgotten. Linking Tom and Cialdini, the commitments could easily be active (written down), public (have them on the wall, or in their exercise books), freely chosen (developed with the pupils) and regularly reprised. It won’t make everyone behave just so, but it should give you a flying start – and if you add to it social proof, a bit of authority and a dash of liking, you’re well on your way.
The second is from my own, current, experience. I’ve introduced a thing to Y8 called Make It Happen. Everyone chooses (freely) two goals, one school based and one not. They also note down the milestones they will need to pass along the way, when they will pass them, and what they need to do to get there. Bespoke stickers are available at each milestone. We launched this last year, using OneNote to share electronic templates to be filled in, which tutors could then check. While some people really took to it, most – OK, almost everyone – didn’t. Same this year. Having read Cialdini, here’s what I’m going to do to make Make It Happen happen.
- A couple of weeks before the launch, run an electronic survey, asking people whether they think they are more likely to work to achieve their goals if they write them down or just think about them; keep them to themselves or go public; have to work hard for them or if they’re easy; are told what they are or can freely choose them. This should encourage lots of them to see themselves as the kind of people who would set goals and monitor their progress.
- When launching, deploy social proof by getting some older children who have benefited from MIH to explain to Y8 why it’s such a good idea. Also, ensure it’s all couched in terms of why this is a good thing to do, so they will want to do it and feel they have freely chosen to engage.
- Bin the electronics and go paper-based. This will adhere to the “Active” principle. I have a sense that writing something is more commitment-forming than typing.
- Put up a list of everyone’s goals in each form room. Not all the milestones, that’s too much. Just the end goals. This meets the “Public” principle.
- Make it quite hard to complete the initial sheet. That is, have several boxes on there, all of which need to be filled in, so it’s “effortful.”
- Return to it formally (e.g. in tutor time) and regularly.
Some of this we’ve already done. So maybe it’s just a crap idea that will never work. But I don’t think so, and I won’t give up until I’ve given it the best chance of success.
Next time: a Twitter thread to summarise it all.