To Commit is Legit

You’re browsing your inbox and see an invite for Mark’s Birthday Cookout Extravaganza and Other Shenanigans. You realize it’s the same day as that 5K you registered for, so you’re not sure whether you’ll feel up to it after the early morning run. You’re hesitant to click one of the customized responses – “Heck yes” or “No, I’m a loser” – because you aren’t ready to commit one way or another, and you’ll likely feel tied to whichever option you choose now come Extravaganza day.

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A group of college students was asked to attend a meeting in exchange for class credit. The meeting outlined an upcoming community initiative for which students were given the opportunity to volunteer. Sixty volunteers were later called, in two separate groups of 30, and asked to pick up their orientation packet over the next three days. One group had an impressive 47% show up, whereas the other group had a measly 17%. What caused the significant discrepancy between the two groups?

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Psychology professor and persuasion guru Robert Cialdini has closely studied commitments and our desire to make consistent choices. In a world where we’re faced with 35,000 decisions a day, our brain is constantly looking for decision-making shortcuts – or heuristics. One such heuristic is that, when we’ve asserted our opinion on something, our subsequent choices usually affirm that stance. Need an example? Go look at any political debate on your Facebook feed. In addition to endless links to heavily biased “articles,” you may notice how the debaters almost always stay aligned with their initial viewpoints. Being consistent requires less mental energy.

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

When it came to the student volunteer project, the difference in turnout was all in the way the commitment was made. Students were given one of two forms, hence the two groups:

  • Active-yes: On the active-yes form, students darkened the “yes” box if they intended to volunteer, then copied a written statement affirming their decision. If they didn’t want to volunteer, they simply skipped this section – a passive choice.
  • Active-no (i.e. passive-yes): On the active-no form, if students didn’t want to volunteer, they had to darken the “no” box and copy a statement. If the section was skipped, they were passively volunteering to participate.

Can you surmise which group had the better turnout? The active-yes group – or the students who took the extra step to volunteer – had nearly 50% follow through on their commitment. Alternatively, less than 1-in-5 of the people who passively volunteered delivered on their promise. When the students had to do something to confirm their intentions, they were more likely to uphold the agreement.

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The workplace presents many opportunities to embrace commitment and consistency. If employees are actively involved in their personal goal setting (and the more public, the better), they’re more likely to act in ways consistent with these goals. Find out what your employees like to do and develop projects that align with these self-declared interests. When employees strongly agree that their manager involves them in goal setting (a belief held by only 30% of employees), they are 3.6 times more likely to be engaged at work.

“The tendency to feel committed to past personal choices and to behave consistently with these commitments has been shown to have a profound impact in various compliance settings.” -Robert Cialdini

Initial commitments don’t have to be big, either; small yeses still influence future decisions and are often much easier to obtain. Consider policy compliance as another example. If employees must take action to indicate they’ll abide by their company’s policies (e.g. by signing an acknowledgement form), they’re more likely to follow through and behave accordingly. But watch out for the trap! If comprehension of your policies requires a law degree, employees aren’t actually committing to anything with their signature – they’re just completing a task.

For the commitment and consistency heuristic to apply, employees must make the mental leap from task completion to understanding that their signature represents a commitment to future behavior. To facilitate this leap, policies must be easy to comprehend and interesting to look at. Start with “why” and give short, easy-to-read summaries of your policies, accompanied by visuals to make them aesthetically pleasing. Basically, do what Blissbook does!

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So, although Mark’s Birthday Cookout Extravaganza and Other Shenanigans guarantees multiple kegs and several yard games, it’s human nature that you don’t want to RSVP right away. And now you know why! Once you’ve actively committed with a simple click of a button, it’s quite likely you’ll be partaking in jumbo Jenga and sleeping on Mark’s couch.

Drew Dotson

Drew Dotson

Drew enjoys eating cheese, cuddling with dogs, doing puzzles, and watching sports. She is passionate about raising awareness (and funds) for cystic fibrosis.

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