Consistency Above All Else

Jul 29, 2014


The discovery of roaches and rodent activity at a popular upscale grocery store shows just how far people will bend to stay consistent with previous beliefs and behaviors.


In my neighborhood there is a high-end independent "boutique" grocery store. It divides people in the area into two camps: those (like me) who consider it pretentious and over-priced, and those who loudly proclaim that they would never shop anywhere else.

The relative merits of the store and shopping experience could be debated endlessly but, for the purposes of this post, the only thing that matters is that the store has, regardless of (or perhaps because of) very high prices many fanatically loyal champions who have supported it both financially and vocally.

Almost three years ago the unthinkable happened. The store was shut down for several days after the public health inspector reported “poor sanitation and pest infestation”.

Initially store management did not handle it well. Instead of owning it and apologizing (currently considered to be the best public relations practice when dealing with such a crisis) they lied. When asked by the media why the store was closed management said it was for “general maintenance . . . equipment maintenance, that kind of thing.” Only later, when confronted with the report from the public health department that had made the inspection, did they admit that cockroaches had been found in the store. The report also mentioned “heavy rodent activity” including droppings (although in fairness no rodents were spotted during the inspection) and several other lesser violations.

My wife thought this would be devastating for the store – that all those loyal champions would feel betrayed and start shopping elsewhere. It made sense – not only had the store let those people down it had, at the onset of media coverage, lied to them. These people had supported the store financially but, more importantly, they had vouched for the store publicly. Surely they would not forgive…

I wasn’t so sure. I’m a big fan of Dr. Robert Cialdini and one of his principles, Commitment and Consistency, has always resonated with me:


If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self-image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement.

Dr. Robert B. Cialdini – Regents' Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing, Arizona State University


In this case I was convinced that they would stay loyal because they had too much to lose otherwise. And, as it turned out, the most fanatical customer I knew was also the most forgiving, and I didn’t encounter one loyal customer that didn’t quickly try to brush the whole thing off.

The explanations I heard ranged from logical fallacy accompanied by naive optimism and elitism...


“all stores have rats and roaches, and my favorite store is cleaner than those stores most people shop at!”


... to xenophobic...


“what do you expect, the roaches came in with an overseas shipment”…. an interesting perspective given that the store specializes in imported foods


... to the conspiratorial...


“the health department was out to get them”


The theme was always the same. The elite, privileged clientele of an upscale store were suddenly telling anyone who would listen that roaches and rat droppings in a grocery store were no big deal.


We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided. ... In most circumstances, consistency is valued and adaptive. ...The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don't match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength.

Dr. Robert B. Cialdini


When you consider Dr. Cialdini’s consistency principle, and the larger theory of cognitive dissonance, it makes perfect sense. Confronted with the news about health code violations the loyal fans had to decide. The could decide that they had been wrong all along, that they had misspent their money, misplaced their trust and misguided all the people they had encouraged to shop there, or they could decide that it was no big deal at all. Which choice is ultimately easier to make?

Are roaches and rodent droppings really such a big deal? If you loved that store should one report be enough to drive you away forever? Probably not. But what would the loyal customers have said if it was the No-Frills down the street that had been written up for the same thing? Probably something like “that’s why I pay more to shop at a better store” (but a little more smug).


Once you have committed to a purchase, an action, a stance, a ball team, or anything like that, it becomes a piece of your identity and you will tend to act in a manner that reinforces that choice.

Dr. Robert B. Cialdini


You see it everywhere. When it’s our team we call it grit or playing tough. When it’s the other team we call it cheating or playing dirty. And the more vocal we have been the quicker we are to forgive, or condemn, in a pattern consistent with past comments.

The incident I mentioned above happened three years ago…. so why bring it up now?

Recently somebody I like and admire did something very smart. Realizing that they had made a bad business decision they simply admitted it and changed course.

It seems like such an obvious thing but it’s not. They had really committed to the initial decision in a big way – financially, vocally and publicly – and most people in that situation would have stuck with it a lot longer. They would have preferred to keep losing money rather than admit they had made a mistake.

Category: Selling

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