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Consistency Principle


Principles > Consistency Principle

Principle | How it works | So what


I like to keep consistent what I think, say and do, and will change to ensure this is so.

How it works

The same thought, word and deed

If I say I am a nice person and then act unpleasantly towards others, then I am breaking the law of consistency. This will, of course, not endear me to other people who might socially ostracize me for my transgressions.

The effect is even more powerful when I think about myself, to the point where I will change my rationalization of the situation  or even my self-perception so everything lines up and makes sense again (at least to me).

This can have strange effects, for example where people who bet on horses increase their estimation of a horse's chance of winning after they have placed bet on it. It is also an important principle for persuasion.

Social pressure

When words and actions disagree, people will assume that a person's intentions are more closely aligned with what they do rather than what they say. An effect of this is that when I act inconsistently with my declarations, other people will see me as being untrustworthy, and hence will at best not believe me in future, and at worst will reject me as worthy of their attention.

This creates significant external pressures that will cause us to be careful about aligning our words and our actions.


We judge ourselves in the same way that we judge others. In fact our judgment is more harsh, as we intimately know our intent, beliefs and value behind our thoughts and actions. When the map and the territory differ, we thus need to change something so they line up again.


When our actions differ from our beliefs or values, we need to explain this to ourselves. As we do not really want to change our beliefs or values, our first move is to seek external reasons for the different. 

For example, if we have hurt someone, rather than accept ourselves as being unkind, we will rationalize our behavior. Thus the enemies are de-humanized and we tell ourselves that our victims were asking for the punishments we meted out to them. 

Another common rationalization is to claim that we were forced to act as we did. This is one of the uses of having someone else as an authority we can blame.

Inner change

If there is insufficient evidence to give a rational external explanation, we are forced to change on the inside. We can thus be led to change even deeply held beliefs and values.

This is why coercion and many persuasion techniques either fail or fail to make permanent changes to the target person. If you want them to really change, then you must let them do it 'all by themselves.'

Feeling it

The effect of inconsistency is to create feelings of tension. This then provides the motivating force that propels people into action. The greater the inconsistency, the greater the tension and the greater the motivation.

Other words that describe feelings associated with inconsistency include: confusion, uncertainty, dissonance, denial and irritation. On the other hand, consistency feels calm, smooth, right, valid and even.

So what

Get people to speak and act outside their normal belief boundaries, preferably in a public way. Then encourages them to change their beliefs to be consistent with their actions. This is how Brainwashing works.

Make it easy for them to do. Charities who get you to sign petitions know that petitions seldom have a significant effect. The real effect is on you, as you now will have to strengthen your belief in the charity's cause in order to support your putting your name (a significant symbol of your identity) on the line.

When getting them to act, do it such that they break their beliefs a little bit at a time, otherwise they will rationalize their actions, blaming the situation (or you!). 

See also

Commitment, Consistency Theory, Attribution Theory, Cognitive Dissonance

Theories about conforming, Theories about meaning, Theories about how we think about ourselves

Christmas compliance


Cialdini, R.B. (1994). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, NY: Quill


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