It all started with a $20 bill. That’s all it took to change me.

How to Rewire Your Brain
Repeated consistent acts will eventually rewire our brains to maintain consistent behavior. (Tweet That)

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Perhaps you read my previous post, Act as If, in which I told you that in order to be anything, do anything, or have anything, the first step is to act as if you already are that person, are doing that thing, or have whatever you want. Perhaps you completely agreed with it. Or perhaps you thought it was mumbo jumbo.

Either way, did you know that it is 100% backed by scientific research?

In the back of my mind I did, but even I had forgotten about the principle of consistency when I wrote that post.

I changed myself that day

As my wife and I stood in line at a travel mall food court somewhere off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I was mostly focused on my upcoming life or death decision: chicken salad sandwich or turkey bacon wrap. But I also noticed a few soldiers in line from a nearby army base.

As I stepped up to pay for my meal, I slipped the cashier a $20 bill and asked her to use it to pay for a few meals.  I don’t tell you this to look like a saint (I’m not). I tell you this because it changed me.

For the rest of the day, I acted like a more giving, caring, and compassionate person. I was more grateful, helpful, and as a result calmer. I treated my family better. I offered to help more.

I acted like the person who had just bought a few lunches for the soldiers.

Backed by science

My actions the rest of that day would come as no surprise to Robert Cialdini, author of Influence. who first documented the principles of commitment and consistency. I’ve written about Cialdini before (I’ve included three links below to previous posts) and with good reason: his books are a goldmine of psychological principles that, when applied, will change your life.

The principle of consistency essentially states that people prefer to act consistently, even if it goes against their normal character. And repeated consistent acts will eventually rewire our brains to maintain that consistent behavior.

Cialdini cites numerous studies to solidify this principle, one of which is particularly telling. It involves a professor who sends his students door-to-door asking that the homeowners put up a 3″x3″ sticker that read “Be a safe driver.” Most did. It’s a simple enough request, but the next part is the one that blows me away.

Three weeks later the students return to ask if the homeowners would be willing to place a large public service billboard on their lawns. Cialdini writes:

To get an idea of just how the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY.

Influence, Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
Want to learn to be more persuasive, to others and yourself? Read this.

In other words, this request was over the top. And yet…

Fully 76 percent of those who had put up the sticker agreed to put this giant billboard in their lawns! The sticker changed them. It changed their self-images. It rewired their brains. A simple 3″X3″ sticker caused them to see themselves as active campaigners for public good. Now they would stop at nothing to preserve that image.

How powerful is this?

Just how powerful is the principle of consistency? Cialdini writes with trepidation:

It scares me enough that I am rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support. Such an action has the potential to influence not only my future behavior, but also my self-image in ways I may not want. And once a person’s self-image is altered, all sorts of subtle advantages become available to someone who wants to exploit that new image.

So I repeat what I said before, whatever you want to be, act as if you already are that person. In time, you will rewire your brain.

How have you seen the principle of consistency work in your life?

Those three posts I mentioned earlier are: The Most Persuasive Word for Leaders | Two Scientifically Proven Techniques to be a Better Leader, Spouse, & More | How Do People Really Want to be Treated?

13 thoughts on “How to Rewire Your Brain | Robert Cialdini’s Principle of Consistency

  1. Let's Grow Leaders says:

    I think such actions also rewire your heart. That may be even more important.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Great point Karin!

  2. Kirbie Earley says:

    I never thought about this, but it’s true. When you do something nice, the unintended consequence is that you feel pretty good. I volunteer sometimes for our Meals on Wheels program, packing meals. It only takes a couple of hours now and then – doable. When I’m driving down there, you’re right, I do sort of have that “that’s right, I’m going to do something good so get out of my way you highway hoggers” 🙂 Thanks for continuing the good..

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      It’s a high actually and that is OK. I think some people refuse to acknowledge that feeling good about a deed is good. We’re designed that way.

  3. Paige Gordon II says:

    That is an awesome study! I haven’t read any of Mr. Cialdini’s books but that is about to change. Definitely going on the to-read list right now! I have seen this principle work so many times in my life it will be awesome to read a little more of the science behind it.

  4. Katherine Leicester says:

    Even if I thought I knew most of this I appreciate the reminder. I am now changed for the better, more determined to be and do who I am…. Or will be this time next year.

    Possibility invites abundance.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Awesome Katherine!

  5. Jana Botkin says:

    A guy I greatly admire urged “his people” to sign an online petition. I hate stuff like that – find the site, enter your info, remember which eddress/user name/password your chose, sign in, confirm the email, blah blah blah.

    But I did it anyway.

    Suddenly, it felt really important! When I got the email urging me to send the petition to others, I knew it was Really Important. Because I acted (signed in and on), my brain was rewired to belong to the cause.

    Ooh, ick. That feels sort of brain-washed. No wonder people get sucked into cults and weird stuff!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Now you know why you fell for it.

  6. Jon Stolpe says:

    Consistency has definitely worked with my wake-up time and my running.

  7. This is like encouragement. If you tell someone that they are “patient” they will often try to be more patient. If you tell someone that you notice they are “thoughtful” – they often will be more thoughtful. It is a positive affirmation for others. I notice that when others say something about me, when I am around them I try to live up to their perception. It is a win-win. Always be the best you that you can be.

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