Call Us: US - +1 845 478 5244 | UK - +44 20 7193 7850 | AUS - +61 2 8005 4826

The Principle of Consistency

The other theory from psychology that has proved its worth time and time again in modern thinking around persuasion and communication is that of Cognitive Dissonance which was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957. The theory of Cognitive Dissonance chiefly highlights the human need for cognitive consistency or balance. Dissonance occurs when a person holds two clearly incongruent thoughts that they cannot resolve – the world is a wonderful place but evil people can kill thousands of innocent people in a single day.

We can see how some turn to religion to resolve the big questions such as these, and, to use Festinger’s approach, reduce the pain and uncertainty caused by such dissonance. Indeed cognitive dissonance suggests a degree of self-persuasion is necessary as recipients are actively encouraged by successful communication to reduce dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance suggests that behaviour can influence beliefs rather than the other way round. Experimenters were surprised to discover that paying students less to endorse a monotonous task to others was more effective than paying them more. The theorists suggested that earning less made the participants more enthusiastic as they sought to justify the time and effort they had expended which could not be justified by the paltry fee they had been paid.

Similarly, by encouraging people to publicly advocate a position with which they disagree we may find them over time changing their opinion. Or by pushing message recipients into publicly committing to an action we actually encourage them to follow through. This is the type of thinking that underlies the work of Dr Robert Cialdini which in turn led to the rise of ‘nudge theory.’

In one well-known experiment ‘no shows’ in doctors’ surgeries were slashed by simply getting the doctor’s receptionist to request that the individual repeat back or write down the time they had been given for their appointment.

In conclusion there really is a science of persuasion and understanding better how this process works can improve our chances of deploying communication techniques to bring about behavioural change.

Effective persuasion can also be seen as two-way as to work it requires a detailed understanding of our audiences and stakeholders and a need to engage with their perception of the situation.

Many of the criticisms aimed at persuasion rest on the idea that our audiences are passive recipients of persuasive messages and lack the resources to challenge what they are being told. Does that sound much like today’s audiences? Perhaps the rhetorical tradition’s idea of a battle for ideas is a more apt metaphor and public relations as advocacy need not be a concept we should be ashamed of any more.