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The need for: Consistency


Explanations > Needs > Consistency

What is it? | Cognitive dissonance | So what?


Have you ever been to the supermarket and found that they have moved the aisle where the milk is kept? Or have you a colleague who is so inconsistent you do not know what they are going to do next? Annoying and uncomfortable, isn't it?

What is it?

When things are inconsistent, we find it difficult to predict and hence control the future. This makes us feel uncomfortable so we will hence act to make things more consistent. If we cannot do this directly, we may achieve consistency in what we perceive by distancing ourselves from the inconsistent items or people. 

Internal consistency

We also have a need for internal consistency. That is, we need for our beliefs, values, morals, attitudes, mental models and so on, all to align with one another. If we belief the world is flat, yet we value science which tells us the world is round, then we will feel uncomfortable about this difference.

We need consistency between our inner beliefs, etc. and our outer actions. This can cause a lot of problems, as we tend to idealize ourselves internally, yet externally we have to face difficult choices. Thus if I believe I am a caring individual, yet do not give money to a beggar, I will feel guilty and uncomfortable.

Cognitive dissonance

In 1957 psychologist Leon Festinger described a very powerful motivator, which he called cognitive dissonance, where inconsistent attitudes, concepts or ideas makes us feel uncomfortable. This drives us to such actions as seeking confirmation of any decisions we make and avoiding anything that might prove those decisions to be anything less than perfect and wise. For example, when we buy a new car, we will happily read articles that praise it, but we will feel bad and discard magazines that show our decision to be unwise.

So what?

Be consistent yourself in your behavior with other people, in order to create trust. You can also, on occasion, be deliberately inconsistent in order to cause confusion and hence tension, destabilizing the other person so you can guide them towards  closure on the points you wish to persuade them.

Show other people to be inconsistent, for example highlighting the differences between their values and their actions. Be careful with this, as they can jump in two directions as they seek to reduce one of the inconsistencies. 

See also

Consistency Theory

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