This post is an unedited excerpt from Robert Cialdini’s fifth edition (2009) of “Influence.” We’re using it to run a comment competition based on the question immediately following the excerpt. Test your knowledge of state-of-the art research on parenting methods while having some fun discussing and sharing with the Life-Parent community.
“It appears that the commitments most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior are those that are active, public, and effortful. However, there is another property of effective commitment more important than the other three combined. To understand what it is, we first need to solve a pair of puzzles in the actions of Communist interrogators and college fraternity brothers.
The first puzzle comes from the refusal of fraternity chapters to allow public-service activities to be part of their initiation ceremonies. Recall Walker’s survey (1967), which reported that community projects, though frequent, were nearly always separated from the membership-induction program. Why? If an effortful commitment is what fraternities are after in their initiation rites, surely they could structure enough distasteful and strenuous civic activities for their pledges; there is plenty of exertion and unpleasantness to be found in the world of old-age-home repairs, mental-health-center yard work, and hospital bedpan duty. Besides, community-spirited endeavors of this sort would do much to improve the highly unfavorable public and media image of fraternity Hell Week rites; a survey (Phalen, 1951) showed that for every positive newspaper story concerning Hell Week, there were five negative stories. If only for public-relations reasons, then, fraternities should want to incorporate community-service efforts into their initiation practices. But they don’t.
To examine the second puzzle, we need to return to the Chinese prison camps of Korea and the political essay contests held for American captives. The Chinese wanted as many Americans as possible to enter these contests so that, in the process, they might write comments favorable to the Communist view. If, however, the idea was to attract large numbers of entrants, why were the prizes so small? A few extra cigarettes or a little fresh fruit were often all that a contest winner could expect. In the setting, even these prizes were valuable, but, still, there were much larger rewards—warm clothing, special mail privileges, increased freedom of movement in camp—that the Chinese could have used to increase the number of essay writers. Yet they specifically chose to employ the smaller rather than the larger, more motivating rewards.
Although the settings are quite different, the surveyed fraternities refused to allow civic activities into their initiation ceremonies for the same reason that the Chinese withheld large prizes in favor of less powerful inducements: They wanted the participants to own what they had done. No excuses, no ways out were allowed. A pledge who suffered through an arduous hazing could not be given the chance to believe he did so for charitable purposes. A prisoner who salted his political essay with anti-American comments could not be permitted to shrug it off as motivated by a big reward. No, the fraternity chapters and Chinese Communists were playing for keeps. It was not enough to wring commitments out of their men; those men had to be made to take inner responsibility for their actions.
Given the Chinese Communist government’s affinity for the political essay contest as a commitment device, it should come as no surprise that a wave of such contests appeared in the aftermath of the 1989 massacre in Tiannanmen Square, where pro-democracy protesters were gunned down by government soldiers. In Beijing alone, nine state-run newspapers and television stations sponsored essay competitions on the “quelling of the counterrevolutionary rebellion.” Still acting in accord with its long-standing and insightful de-emphasis of rewards for public commitments, the Beijing government left the contest prizes unspecified.
Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform certain actions, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the acts. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to them. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.
In fact, large material rewards may even reduce or “undermine” our inner responsibility for an act, causing a subsequent reluctance to perform it when the reward is no longer present (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Higgins, Lee, Kwon, & Trope, 1995; Lepper & Greene, 1978).
Cialdini, Robert B. (2009-08-20). Influence: Science and Practice, ePub (5th Edition) (Kindle Locations 1952-1986). Pearson HE, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The implications of this article for resisting attempts by others to influence us, are huge. But the article can serve us well in other ways. For one, if your’e in business, we’re talking here about techniques that the world’ most successful sales personnel use. More importantly, the implications for parents are mind-boggling. Let’s see who can give us the best response to the following question:
What does Cialdini’s work tell us about the best way to build character, successful belief-systems and habits in our children? What does it overwhelmingly suggest about the culturally accepted ways in which Caribbean parents have traditionally instilled discipline?”