Being consistent with your beliefs, staying true to your word, and keeping your promises are all characteristics that most of us strive for. Why is this so? Perhaps part of the explanation is the way people view inconsistent individuals. These individuals are generally seen as unpredictable, fickle, uncertain unreliable, untrustworthy, confused, and possibly mentally ill. Put simply, a person who generally doesn't stick to his word and behave consistently is viewed unfavorably and not respected. Such a situation is obviously very troubling and detrimental in both social and professional settings. Although a case could perhaps be made that two-faced individuals get far in the professional world... On the other hand, if a person is consistent and true to his beliefs, he is often respected and admired. This individual is often seen as someone you can trust and rely on because they aren't going to change their minds and back out of commitments.
Given how strong the pressure of being consistent is and the severe social consequences of failing to be consistent, it shouldn't be surprising that these same tendencies can be used to manipulate individuals in a variety of settings towards beneficial or detrimental ends. One of the main paths for utilizing the strong desire to be consistent is through extracting commitments. If you can make an individual take a stand, ideally in a manner that involves others being aware of the commitment, then you might be able to set the consistency machinery in motion. Once the stand is taken, there is a strong tendency to act in accordance to that initial commitment or else risk being viewed as inconsistent and suffer the consequences. An additional step can be taken to make the commitment even stronger. You can ask the person to describe why they are making the commitment. This creates an even greater initial investment and makes it that much more likely that consistency pressures will win out.
Additionally, commitments can be used to change a person's self-image. Once this change occurs, its effects are lasting and can apply to other relevant situations. Once the pressure to be consistent is set in motion, it is very difficult to stop. The new commitment takes on a life of its own and future decisions, thinking patterns, and perspectives start to be filtered through the lens of the commitment. In essence, all upcoming commitments and decisions further strengthen the initial one that started the trend. For instance, if you get a person to publicly admit they value volunteer work, you will have an easier time convincing them to volunteer their time and show support in a variety of different settings. This individual will also more likely be favorable towards arguments that emphasize the benefits of civic engagement and volunteerism. Every time a new related situation arises, the committed individual has to ask himself: "Is my current decision in line with what I promised I would do?" If the individual rejects your requests, he has the difficult task of internally (and perhaps externally) justifying his inconsistent behavior. People generally do not enjoy being seen as fickle or inconsistent with their behavior and priorities, especially if others are aware of their initial commitments.
These behavioral findings can be applied in a variety of real-world settings. For instance, I recently saw an ad by Metro for taking the subway to the Dodgers stadium. The poster was advertising a shuttle service that leaves from Union Station and takes passengers to the Dodgers Stadium on game nights. This particular ad could have been improved by the addition of messages such as, "Do you enjoy traffic? Do you enjoy the frustration of trying to find parking AND having to pay for it? Do you enjoy spending money on gas?" These questions could get the audience to commit to a particular perspective that would make it more favorable for taking the subway. The onlookers might think, "Wait a minute.. if I agree with these statements, why do I keep driving to the stadium and dealing with all this nonsense?" The poster could end with this punchline, "Yet you still drive to the stadium instead of taking the subway..." A poster such as this could potentially be much more effective than the current bland one being used which merely advertises the existence of the service and does nothing else to change behavior.
These findings can also be applied in another example dealing with community involvement. For instance, the organization "TreePeople" allies itself with members of the community to plant trees, install bioswales, and construct rain gardens (in addition to many other projects). The success of these projects largely depends on the continual involvement of the community members because without constant maintenance, the trees can wither away and die, the rain gardens can be infested with weeds, and the bioswales can get clogged with trash. To help ensure continued involvement by community members, TreePeople can ask for a verbal or public commitment. For instance, during the initial big gathering when the project is being constructed or installed, the staff members can ask all the community members present to verbally pledge their continued support. This pledge should be asked after the work for the day is finished and the volunteers have already made the initial commitment. Another idea might involve displaying a plaque on the property of one of the homeowners in the neighborhood. The plaque can briefly mention the project and publicly display the continued support of the members of the community. Later on, when maintenance is required, it will hopefully be more difficult for these community members to not get involved because doing so would mean they are being inconsistent with their initial pledge.
Whatever methods are ultimately used, the goal should be to tap into the powerful desire to be consistent. Once this mechanism is accessed, behavioral change and compliance is much more likely.