Tag Archives: Robert B. Cialdini

The key to good CPD? Inconsistency

“Americans don’t really have opinions. What we have is bumper stickers. Once you’ve committed to a bumper sticker, there’s no changing your mind then.”

Rich Hall, comedian

Furby, Buzz Lightyear, Tickle Me Elmo. What have they all got in common? Yes, they are all toys (not that kind of toy, tsh). What else do they have in common? Well, along with Star Wars figures, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, Nintendo game cartridges, Tracy Island playsets, Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and a whole host of others, they are all massively popular toys that have found themselves with a supply shortage at Christmas.

Wild scenes at the release of the Michael Gove's autobiography.
Wild scenes at the release of Michael Gove’s autobiography.

This happens almost every year: a toy or game is deemed the number one most desirable ‘must-have’ present for kids at Christmas only for it to be in very short supply, meaning that thousands of children have to go without it over the festive season.

So surely toy companies would learn from these mistakes and ensure that they are fully stocked for Christmas? Why has this been same phenomenon been happening for decades?

Psychologist Robert Cialdini (yep, him again) has a friend who worked in the toy industry who gave him an explanation for this. The explanation is based on the idea that there is a huge lull in sales during the first quarter of the year as people had already spent their toy budgets during the Christmas boom. Despite investing financially in extra advertising or dropping prices, toy companies found that this slump persisted. So the companies came up with another approach. An approach which cost them nothing.

The theory goes that companies advertise these must-have toys in the run-up to Christmas. Kids then nag their parents for these toys and parents promise that they will get them in their stockings. Companies then undersupply the toys to the market and so parents, facing an upset child as they can’t follow through on their promise, buy toys or games of equal value.

The companies then advertise the must-have toys again after Christmas, during the first quarter sales slump. The kids see these ads, remember the promises made to them, and go back to their parents citing those earlier covenants. The parents then go back to the shops and buy the original must-have toy that they promised their children. A toy which is now, funnily enough, in plentiful supply. This theory means that the toy companies double their profits.

Now this story is repeated in Cialdini’s book, ‘Influence: Science and Practice’, as an anecdote from somebody who used to work in the toy industry. Regardless of whether we believe it or not, the idea behind it is based on something interesting: the consistency principle. This is the idea that we have an innate drive to be  – and to appear to be – consistent with our prior behaviour or beliefs. So, in the case of the toy companies, they are tapping into the human desire of the parents to be consistent with their earlier commitment to buy the toy. They know that a large number of the parents will be consistent with a decision they had made earlier.

There are a number of studies where the power of this principle has been shown. An interesting one cited by Cialdini is a 1968 study by Knox and Inkster that noted how people at horse races are more confident of their horses’ chances of winning just after placing the bets than they are immediately before. Despite nothing changing in the horses’ chances, the consistency principle ensures that the gamblers have convinced themselves that their decision is the right one and so feel better about it. This is a close cousin of the sunk cost fallacy, which I wrote about here.

Now consistency is largely seen as a desirable trait, which is difficult to argue with – as Cialdini acknowledges, “[w]ithout it our lives would be difficult, erratic, and disjointed”. But he also notes that, whilst “it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we fall into the habit of being automatically consistent even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be.”

One of the reasons consistency appeals to us is that once we have made a decision, if we stay consistent to that decision we don’t have to think too hard anymore. And as Daniel Willingham points out, “our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.” So consistency is a useful shortcut to stop us from having to think too much.

Rodin's most famous sculpture, 'At the End of  the CPD Day' (1880).
Rodin’s most famous sculpture, ‘At the End of the CPD Day’ (1880).

The other reason Cialdini cites for being consistent is that, sometimes, we just don’t want to face the reality of what may happen if we think differently: consistency is “a safe hiding place from troubling realisations: Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.” In this way, consistency can be seen as harmful to our best interests: we eschew something that may be helpful, or indeed truthful, and fall back into the safety net of our consistent beliefs.

I quite often discuss subjects such as edtech and SOLO taxonomy and, in debating it, it may seem that my sceptical position on the value of both of these is quite consistent. Unmoving, even.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. My beliefs on these two issues are entirely inconsistent with my prior positions. I have, in the past, been a torch-carrier for iPads in the classroom, opening up my classroom for many to observe the use of these and other new technologies. Furthermore, I actually delivered sessions on new technology in education for four years on a university ITT course for both primary and secondary trainees. My position on the value of new technologies in the classroom has shifted considerably over the past few years, but it is a position that shifted through the spectrum. I don’t hold my position as a sceptic through a lack of experience or through Luddism. Largely, the shift is down to an understanding of opportunity cost, alongside facing a poverty of evidence.

Likewise, I also read heavily on SOLO taxonomy and put my ideas together for about 6 months before applying them to the classroom. I then spent about two years experimenting with SOLO in the classroom, during which time I led a school improvement group which trialled its use. Again, my position on SOLO has developed to one of scepticism. This is largely because of the value it places on ‘thinking skills’ over and above knowledge. As knowledge is the third stage in the hierarchy, I have reservations of how important both pupils and teachers see knowledge in the learning process. These are reservations I noted over many months of seeing teachers and pupils approach the process.

The reason I chose to look specifically at edtech and SOLO is that they seem to be areas where automatic consistency is prevalent. As in the opening quote from Rich Hall, SOLO enthusiasts often have the bumper sticker of their beliefs in their Twitter bios. Likewise, I don’t know how someone can be objective about the use of iPads in the classroom if they include an Apple symbol in their online username. With these sorts of behaviours, automatic consistency is so pervasive that challenging such a belief is often akin to challenging someone’s faith.

David Didau recently wrote a defence of how some of his views have changed, in the face of accusations that he somehow lacked conviction by changing his mind. Likewise, plenty of my views are entirely inconsistent with what I thought about them just a few years ago. I don’t think such development of thought needs defending, but the fact that it does is entirely compatible with our default nature to see consistency as the desirable trait.

The fact is that by eschewing the drive to be consistent, my thinking and practice has developed in ways that it wouldn’t have had I just stuck to a consistent position  – and that goes for many areas of pedagogy, not just edtech and SOLO.

So my advice for great professional development is: be aware of your drive to be consistent and don’t be afraid to be inconsistent at any time. Inconsistency can – and does – bring about real development.

And, by the way, I reserve the right to think that this is a terrible approach at any time in the future.


‘Influence: Science and Practice’ by Robert B. Cialdini

‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ by Daniel Willingham


How riding the herd mentality may have helped my GCSE classes

Petrified wood - ArizonaMany weeks ago, I grew concerned with the lack of independent preparation that my GCSE classes were doing for their English exams. Held up by the scaffold of intervention around them, I sensed that they’d become too comfortable to break out from it and stand up on their own. But then maybe that is our doing – should we be dismantling their scaffolding piece by piece as they approach the exam, allowing them to become freestanding in good time? Do we do the opposite and add more scaffolding then take it all away at once in the exam hall?

Anyway, they weren’t doing the one thing that I wanted them to do off their own steam: practising exam responses.

As far as I’m concerned, practising exam responses is the most useful thing they can do before the English exam. It’s not just about technique – it’s about engaging with ideas in order to remember them and build on them, as well as preparing language analysis that is flexible and portable: I always tell pupils that their responses in their exam will be replications and adaptations of things they’ve written already if they are well-prepared. ‘Do the work now rather than in the exam’ is a mantra I often repeat to them.

I told them that they should be bringing in – or emailing me – exam responses regularly (over and above scheduled homework responses). The return was underwhelming.

So I started to nag them about the lack of exam responses and how concerning it was: “I am getting very few exam responses. I’m disappointed that only a small minority are working hard enough. The work you put in now is vital to your success!” Still very little. Why weren’t they responding to my genuine concern that they weren’t doing enough as a group? They are very good at responding to me in the classroom. What was different here?

Then, around this same time, I stumbled across a study by psychologist Robert B. Cialdini about creating social norms through the way we communicate. The study, Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment, was particularly interesting in its suggestion about how, when we are trying to establish behavioural norms in groups of people, it can often “backfire to produce the opposite of what a communicator intends.”

The study summarised that:

There is an understandable, but misguided, tendency to try to mobilize action against a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Information campaigns emphasize that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming, and—most relevant to this article—that rampant polluters are spoiling the environment. Although these claims may be both true and well intentioned, the campaigns’ creators have missed something critically important: Within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.”

The study goes on to detail an experiment at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which at the time was suffering from the theft of around a ton a month of wood. They had signs up that read: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time. “

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Cialdini and his colleagues felt that this was creating the impression in visitors that stealing wood was normative behaviour. The signs perpetuated the thinking: everyone else is doing it, so there’s no harm in me doing so too.

In order to test their hypothesis, Cialdini and his colleagues replaced the signage and measured the amount of wood stolen when this new signage was displayed.

When they displayed the sign, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest” alongside an image of three visitors taking wood, the percentage of wood stolen over a 5 week period was 7.92%. In contrast, when the sign they displayed read, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest” (accompanied by an image of a lone visitor stealing wood with a red circle and bar superimposed over the top), only 1.67% of the wood was stolen.

Similar studies have been completed in order to promote other societally beneficial conduct such as reducing energy consumption in whole neighbourhoods. Below is an example of the messages given in that energy consumption study (again by Cialdini) in San Diego:


And here is how those messages converted to changes in energy consumption.

Change in average daily energy use

The message is clear, as Cialdini concludes, we “should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.”

So, by stating my concern that the majority weren’t doing the work, was I convincing them that it was okay not to do the work?

I think so. With this in mind, I immediately started using language that didn’t imply this. I focused my language on emphasising  those that were. And responses began to get more frequent. Now, the rise in frequency may very well correlate with the imminence of the exam: the closer we get, the more we prepare. But I think that by emphasising inductive norms  (what people typically approve or disapprove) over descriptive norms (what people typically do), it has helped a great deal.

A useful reminder of how important our language is in the classroom.

I think I have had practise exam responses emailed to me at almost hourly intervals this weekend. Yes, the exam is in just a few days. But I’m not sure I recall having so many in previous years.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just checked my email and I’ve received 3 more exam responses whilst I’ve been typing this.