Why Are They Still Together? Psychology and the Need for Consistency
By Heath Shive
Toxic relationships – whether with your spouse, friends, or political party – may be connected to the brain’s compulsion for consistency.
Back in the 1960s, psychologists R. E. Knox and J. A. Inkster performed a study at a horse track. They found that people were more confident about their bet after they made their wager than right before they had made their bets.
There was no change in facts. The horses, the track, and the weather were all the same. But 30 seconds after they made their bet, they were more confident of winning.
As Robert Cialdini described it in his book Influence, “Once we have made a choice…we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”
Our brains are programmed for consistency. Staying with an earlier decision is usually a good thing - it's promotes stability, facilitates future decisions, and saves time.
Consistency also makes us easier to control.
The More Public the Choice, the More Stubborn We Are
Social psychologists M. Deutsch and H. Gerard performed a study on 3 different groups of college students. The students had to estimate the lengths of some lines.
The first group had to write down their estimates, sign the paper, and hand these papers to the experimenter.
The second group wrote their estimates on an old-time Magic Pad – a pad with a plastic film on the front. When you lifted the plastic, the writing would disappear. The second group guessed, wrote, and lifted their writing away without anyone seeing their guesses.
The third group only had to guess mentally – no writing, no public commitment.
Then evidence for the true lengths of the lines was introduced. The third group was the most pliable – changing their estimates as more information was revealed. The second group (who written their guesses privately) were much more reluctant to change their minds.
But the most stubborn group was the first. Those who had written, signed, and publicly announced their decisions were the most reluctant to change their minds in the face of new data.
Ever See This?
Have you ever had a boss make you sign a paper that acknowledged an agreement to change?
Ever hear of a "straight ticket" voter?
Have you ever seen a relationship that was so toxic, so dysfunctional, and yet it lasted for years?
These are just examples of the “consistency principle” at work.
Imagine a couple about to marry. First, they publicly announce their intention. Next, they commit to plans. Then, they sign official paperwork. Finally, they declare themselves publicly in front of friends and family.
Are wedding traditions geared to hyper-enforce commitment?
Some long-term relationships are successful!
And some relationships just die hard.
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Deutsch, M., and H. B. Gerard. “A Study of Normative and Informational Social Influences upon Individual Judgment.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51 (1955): 629-36.
Knox, R. E., and J. A. Inkster. “Postdecisional Dissonance at Post Time.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(1968): 319-323.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.