Why We Can Be Persuaded To Do Stupid Things?

Published: May 23 , 2013
Author: Alan Smith

There is no doubt that people are strange. 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 neighborhood 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 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.


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Alan Smith

About the author:

Alan Smith
My background is marketing and advertising. After graduating in Economics I entered the agency world to become, at 28, MD of London's largest independent below-the-line marketing provider.

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