How Consistency Shapes Our Identity

Photo by Will Myers on Unsplash

Logic is lovely. It allows our minds to produce a sterling line of consistent thought, weaving facts we observe into theories we infer. Without it, there would be no science of any kind, no elegant solutions to known problems, no deductive reasoning. I can’t think of a more bedrock concept in human cognition.

Of course, no one said logic must make sense. It must only be consistent. This is how you get to very logical yet very absurd syllogisms. For example, consider one of the finest logical arguments ever made in the history of cinema. I’ll set the stage a bit:

In a medieval village, a crowd brings a purported witch to the public square, calling for the person to be burned. Sir Vladimir, future knight of the round table, asks the crowd to explain why they believe this person is a witch. The reasons are somewhat thin. Sir Vladimir then helps the crowd devise a method that can objectively test their case.

They start by first defining a witch’s true composition. This leads to a non-invasive process for detecting such composition in the test subject. Using logic, the test is discovered in the dialogue below:

“V” is Sir Vladimir

“P1–3” are people in the crowd

“King” is the great King Arthur, Lord of the Britons

V: Tell me… what do you do with witches?

P3: Burn’em! Burn them up! (burn burn burn)

V: What do you burn apart from witches?

P1: More witches! (P2 nudge P1)

(pause)

P3: Wood!

V: So, why do witches burn?

(long pause)

P2: Cuz they’re made of… wood?

V: Gooood.

(crowd congratulates P2)

V: So, how do we tell if she is made of wood?

P1: Build a bridge out of her!

V: Ahh, but can you not also make bridges out of stone?

P1: Oh yeah…

V: Does wood sink in water?

P1: No

P3: No. It floats!

P1: Let’s throw her into the bog! (yeah yeah ya!)

V: What also floats in water?

P1: Bread

P3: Apples

P2: Very small rocks

(V looks annoyed)

P1: Cider

P3: Grape gravy

P1: Cherries

P3: Mud

King: A Duck!

(all look and stare at king)

V: Exactly! So, logically…

P1(thinking): If she weighs the same as a duck… she’s made of wood!

V: And therefore,

(pause & think)

P3: A witch! (P1: a witch)(P2: a witch)(all: a witch!)

For more on this beautiful exchange, please watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But that’s just one of many priceless, absurd products of logic. Another favorite comes from Frank Zappa in an interview conducted with a radio host on October 22, 1966. The radio host, named Joe Pyne, tried to insult Zappa at the start. Zappa’s brilliant retort put Mr. Pyne on his heels rather quickly:

Joe Pyne: I guess your long hair makes you a girl.
Frank Zappa: I guess your wooden leg (Pine was an amputee) makes you a table.

Logic at its finest!

Aagin, none of this makes sense but it’s doesn’t have to. Sensible logic is nice but consistency matters more. This is logic, after all. And it’s the logical consistency that gives these two examples a real-yet-ridiculous quality of truth. That consistency creates a very powerful force for persuasion.

Waffles and Hobgoblins

Consistency is powerful because people don’t like change. Especially change that comes from other people. They don’t like it when we are not reliably consistent and predictable in our thoughts and deeds.

Such changes spell doom to politicians. If an elected official switches their position too often (i.e., once), they’ll be labeled as flip-flopping wafflers. This is the most grave of all scarlet letters.

Meanwhile, parents, teachers, managers, and entire businesses that decide to change draw the same level of anger. And yet, everyone seems to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

And we applaud Bertrand Russell when he boldly offers the following:

I have been accused of a habit of changing my opinions. I am not myself in any degree ashamed of having changed my opinions.

Indeed, why should anyone be ashamed for changing their opinions? I can’t think of a greater hallmark for intelligence than the ability to change one’s mind. Especially since it turns out to be a very difficult thing to do without the social pressure.

Why is it so difficult? The problem starts with logical consistency. We occasionally take it too far and paint ourselves into figurative corners. Hold too tightly to a single value or criterion and you’ll eventually find yourself trapped. It’s Maslow’s Law of the Instrument all over again. As he once wrote:

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Except, in the case of logic consistency, the reality is that you might have many other tools. But if you sold yourself as a hammer specialist, or if you posed your whole argument on a single value, you will be typecast. Society won’t allow you to use those other tools or values. You may as well not even possess them.

“What are you doing with that screwdriver? I thought you were a hammer guy? When are you going to get back to using hammers?”

Such typecasting is well understood in show business. But it runs deeper than that, of course. Any change of heart, or expansion of perspective, is deemed by others to be a violation of some prior identity. It creates dissonance. Which no one likes.

I don’t think we’re changing this dynamic any time soon. So the best thing to do is to avoid the consistency trap by devaluing the importance we place on social expectation. Particularly when it comes to our thinking. This gets us to what Robert Kegan describes as a self-authored stage of human development.

The takeaway: until you can truly detach yourself from social pressure, don’t anchor yourself to narrow positions you’ll inevitably abandon. That’s how consistency becomes a trap.

On the flip side, we can also use the consistency trap to our advantage. We can ride the wave of social expectation whenever it fits our identity, our desires, and our broader strategy for progress. All it takes is finding a direction to which we want to be held accountable.

We Need Deeper Compliments

Robert Cialdini, PhD, wrote one of the best books on the psychology of influence. In it, he provides several key principles that drive human behavior and consistency is one of the precious few that affect us all. For reasons mentioned above, this principle can lead us into difficult logical traps, painting us into corners with our “foolish consistencies.” But it can also fuel our persistence when the needed. As Cialdini writes:

Once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this view of himself.

This sounds very manipulative and I suppose it is. So intent matters quite a bit here. Self-image can be constructive or destructive. If one person’s self-image is that of a fast-living, hard-drinking party animal, then their friends will invoke that self-image and say that the person simply must come with them to the bar instead of going to the library to study on a Tuesday night. The pressure to do so will be quite powerful.

But the pressure can be constructive. If you help a person cultivate a positive self-image, you will give them a much-needed boost towards fulfilling that image. Tell a child that they are just a trouble-maker and you effectively give them more reason to make trouble. Tell a child they are responsible and kind and you give them more reasons to act that way, too.

Notice that this is about the qualities of a person. Distinct compliments on our qualities reinforce the best part of our identities. Why? Because we all want to be the best version of ourselves. So I wish we offered these kind words more often.

Far too often, we compliment more specifically by highlighting certain acts or statements. It’s easier to do and feels nice. “I like what you did there,” or “I like what you said.” Those very specific compliments are welcome, of course, but the specificity compels us to continue to do and say and do those same things again and again.

Like a dog looking for a treat, we’ll turn to that specific thought or deed over and over to get another round of applause. We’ll focus on those specific, instrumental acts and statements and abandon the logic and paradigms that got us there and can get us to other, even better ideas.

It’s like Spongebob Squarepants in the Ripped My Pants episode. He finds one joke that everyone likes and uses it over and over again. Why? Because he was praised for the joke itself, not for the comedic timing or the slapstick approach. His identity was wrapped around the joke instead of comedy itself. Poor guy.

The point? A more narrow self-image, brought on by specific praise, leads to repetitions and reinforcements that no one really wants. We are more than that. So let’s try to compliment the quality of a person in addition to the specific actions or deeds. Link the two wherever possible. This helps us reinforce the deeper parts of ourselves. “I like that thing you did because it shows how thoughtful and considerate you are.”

Consistency and Commitment

Finally, one of the most uncomfortable ways that consistency can fuel persistence is with public commitments. As Cialdini writes:

It appears that commitments are most effective when they are active, public, and effortful.

Notice the three components that are necessary to really supercharge the change effort. I think this applies in the following way:

Imagine you want to run a marathon. How can this consistency principle work in your favor?

First, by making the commitment active. Tell everyone you are going to run every day and you’ll infuse your commitment with an active quality.

Second, by making the commitment part of a public goal. Tell everyone you’re doing these daily runs as a training plan to complete a marathon someday and now the goal is public.

Third, by acknowledging the effort it will require. Explain how hard this will be, how you need people’s support, and you’ll create that real sense of challenge that makes it all worthwhile.

And if you want to go a step further, ratchet the “effortful” component by pledging your commitment through something like Beeminder. This is such a beautiful service. It offers a platform for making specific commitments and tying a financial stake to the outcome. In this case, the outcome doesn’t have to be the marathon itself. Rather, just the commitment to train for the marathon.

The smaller commitment to train allows you to overcome the inertia, channel the consistency effect, and induce action. Because, as Cialdini writes, inducement is all we really need.

People often can become committed to a choice through an initial inducement and still become more dedicated after the inducement has been removed.

Why? Because consistency wraps itself around that effort once it has begun. Momentum sets in. Identity shifts soon after. We continue to run regularly because we were already running regularly. It’s the sunk cost fallacy working in a positive direction. Carry that forward and logic dictates that, before you know it, you’re one of those people who run so often that you’ll go complete an entire marathon.

In closing, consistency is a powerful component of influence. We do a lot of things because we’ve always done them. To selectively remain consistent at a core level, rather than specific level, is crucial. We possess certain qualities and characteristics that should never change. Those parts are true to our core. That’s why consistency matters and is so influential. That’s how this principle helps us channel positive influence.

But only when we deliberately choose those qualities and characteristics for ourselves. Leave it to others and this form of influence gets very harmful very fast.