How safety can benefit from our natural tendency to stick with decisions and commitments

It's fitting that my first contribution to the new "Behaviors & Attitudes" column addresses the age-old question: Which comes first- attitude or behavior? Actually, the more practical question is which one should be targeted first for change? Education typically addresses "attitude," or internal and subjective dimensions of people, by attempting to "think people into acting differently."

Training programs focus on behavior. Through role-play exercises and behavioral feedback, people practice desired target behaviors. Here, the attempt is to "act people into thinking differently." It's presumed that if people act in a certain way, they will adjust their internal intentions, beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes to be consistent with their behaviors.

The key word is "consistency." The truth is that both education and training work because of our need to be consistent. It doesn't matter whether you address attitude or behavior first if you successfully tap into this need to be consistent.

I recommend targeting behavior first because it is easier to change on a large scale than attitude. Psychologists know more about changing behavior than attitude because behavior is easier to measure objectively and reliably. Thus, various intervention procedures to influence behaviors in organizational settings have been developed and refined through empirical research.

Let's examine the consistency principle in more depth to see how it works.

The consistency principle

Many psychologists consider the consistency principle a tool of influence lying deep within us, directing our actions. It reflects our motivation to be and appear consistent. Think about it: When you make a choice or take a stand, you encounter personal and social pressures to perform consistently with your commitment. This pressure to be consistent comes from three basic sources:

  • Society values consistent individuals, people who "live up to their word."
  • Consistent conduct benefits daily existence.
  • Consistency is a stabilizing influence that can make our lives simpler. A consistent orientation allows us to take shortcuts when processing information and making decisions. Instead of considering all relevant information in a certain situation, it helps if you need only remember your guiding commitment and respond consistently to it.

Here are three techniques for changing behavior that employ the consistency principle:

Public commitments

When people sign their name to a petition or pledge card, they make a commitment to behave in a certain way. Later, they behave in this way to be true to their commitment. You can use this variation of the consistency principle to increase safety-related behavior. After discussing a particular work procedure, your audience could be asked to make a commitment to perform the desired behavior. Now what kind of commitment should be requested?

Commitments are most effective or influential when they are public, require some effort, and are perceived as voluntary or not coerced. Let me explain: It is better to have employees make a public, rather than private, commitment to perform a certain safe behavior. It's better to have them sign their name to a card or public declaration display than merely raise their hands. And it is very important for those pledging to believe they made the commitment voluntarily. Decisions to make a public commitment are dramatically influenced by external factors like peer pressure, but if people write an internal script saying they made a personal choice, consistency is most likely to follow the commitment.

So if you're promoting a commitment strategy, respect the influence of personal choice and make statements that allow participants to believe the commitment is completely up to them. I discussed the pledge card technique in earlier ISHN articles (May, 1994 and July, 1995).

Starting small

We've all heard about the importance of "getting your foot in the door" and "starting with a small win." This strategy for gaining influence also follows directly from the consistency principle. You see, a person who follows a small request is likely to comply with a larger request later to remain consistent. After agreeing to serve on a "safety steering committee," an individual is more willing to give a safety presentation at a plant-wide safety and health meeting. Research has found this commitment strategy succeeds in boosting product sales, monetary contributions to charities, and blood donations.

The pledge card commitment technique uses this principle. After people sign a pledge card that commits them to perform a certain behavior for a specified period of time- "Buckle vehicle safety belts for one month," "Use particular personal protective equipment for two months," "Walk behind yellow lines for the rest of the year"- they are more likely to actually do the safe behavior.

Now here's an important consideration: The "foot-in-the-door" technique only works when people comply with the initial small request. If a person says "No" to the first request, this individual might find it even easier to refuse a subsequent, more important request. I'm sure you've had some experience with the idea that "the first - no' is the hardest to say." If circumstances suggest a "No" to your request, you didn't start small enough. In this case, be prepared to retreat to a less demanding request. I wrote more on this technique in a July, 1995 ISHN article.

Raising the stakes

The technique of "lowballing" occurs when a person is persuaded to make a decision or commitment because the stakes associated with the decision are relatively low. Serving on the safety steering committee might not be asking too much if the meetings are only monthly. When the individual becomes committed to the decision, say by attending the first two safety meetings, the stakes are then raised- perhaps more meetings must be attended for a special safety effort. To stay consistent, the individual will likely stick with the original decision, and remain an active member of the committee.

Almost 20 years ago researchers first demonstrated the power of this technique by attempting the daunting challenge of trying to get college students to sign up for a 7:00 a.m. experiment on "thinking processes." During solicitation phone calls, the 7:00 a.m. start time was mentioned up front for half the subjects. Only 24 percent agreed to participate. For the other subjects, the caller first asked if they wanted to participate in the study. After 56 percent agreed, the caller said the experiment started at 7:00 a.m. The subjects had a chance to change their minds, but none did. Plus, 95 percent of these individuals actually showed up at the 7:00 a.m. appointment time. After making an initial commitment to participate, practically all the subjects showed consistency and kept their commitment- despite having the stakes subsequently raised.

This procedure is similar to the "foot-in-the-door" technique. A larger request occurs after a person agrees with a smaller request. A key difference, though, is that there is only one basic decision in the lowballing procedure, with the costs or stakes raised after initial commitment. This compliance tactic is common among car dealers. Once a customer agrees to purchase a car at a special price, say $800 below all other competitors, the price is raised for a number of reasons. The salesperson's boss might refuse to approve the deal, certain options are not included in the special price, or the dealership manager may decrease the value of the customer's trade-in. Customers who have agreed to the special price usually will not change their minds, to do so might suggest a lack of consistency or failure to stick with a decision- even though the obligation is only imaginary. Often customers will develop a set of new reasons to justify their initial choice and the additional costs.

Don't stifle trust

The lowballing strategy raises a critical issue. How do you feel about people who use the technique when you know they're trying to get something from you, whether it's more money, a commitment, or a safe behavior? Do you trust the waiter who brings you an expensive wine list only after you've been seated and made selections from the food menu? Your answer probably depends on whether you believe this sequence of events was done intentionally to get you to buy more.

Similarly, you might not dislike or mistrust the car salesman who adds cost to an advertised purchase price unless you suspect that the original price was fabricated to draw you in.

In other words, our trust, appreciation, or respect for people- specifically change agents in the workplace for the purposes of this article- might drop considerably if we believe they intentionally use an influence technique to trick or deceive us into modifying our attitude or behavior. Of course, there may be no harm done if the result is clearly for our own good, such as our health or safety, and we realize this.

To summarize: Since the consistency principle applies to changing attitudes and behaviors, it doesn't matter which we try to work on first. The inner drive for consistency will help us succeed, whether it's brought out through education (addressing attitudes) or training (addressing behaviors). The issue is whether a technique is available to influence attitudes or behaviors.

The three techniques discussed here target behavior. But it could be argued that internal, or attitudinal, dimensions were intertwined throughout each technique. For maximum influence, the pledge card procedure requires a person to believe internally that the commitment is voluntary. Following compliance with escalating demands, internal commitment is developed until eventually an "attitude" results. And the lowballing technique depends on the individual developing an internal justification for the initial decision, which then strengthens commitment and leads to compliant behavior when circumstances change.

The key lesson is that people attempt to keep their thinking in line with their actions, and vice versa. Whether attitude or behavior is influenced first, if the person does not feel coerced, both will likely be changed.