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Preference for consistency

Author: Dr Simon Moss


After some individuals fulfill a minor request, they feel obliged to comply with subsequent requests (Guadagno, Asher, Demaine, & Cialdini, 2001). For example, if they sign a petition about some issue, they will feel compelled to donate to this cause as well. This tendency is especially pronounced in individuals who like to perceive themselves as consistent and stable across time rather than unpredictable, complex, and spontaneous.

Specifically, if individuals like to perceive themselves as predictable and stable, called a preference for consistency, their choices are biased towards their previous behaviors. If they act helpfully at one time, they likely to feel they will act helpfully at another time (Guadagno, Asher, Demaine, & Cialdini, 2001).

Three forms of preference for consistency can be differentiated (see Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995). Private consistency refers to the need to ensure that personal values, attitudes, and beliefs are consistent with one another. Public consistency concerns the desire to appear consistent to other people. Finally, other consistency describes the need to perceive other people as consistent as well.

Evolution of preference for consistency

The concept of preference for consistency emerged from cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957). This theory assumes that dissonant cognitions--beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes that contradict one another--elicit an unpleasant state. This state elicits behaviors that reconcile these inconsistencies.

Many other theories also acknowledge the aversion of individuals to inconsistencies and contradictions (e.g., Rokeach, 1960). Cialdini, Trost, and Newsom (1995), however, argued the level of aversion to this inconsistency, incongruity, or dissonance does vary across individuals or situations. Preference for consistency, in this context, represents sensitivity to this dissonance or the propensity to resolve these contradictions.


Susceptibility to influence

Cialdini, Trost, and Newsom (1995) showed that preference for consistency generally curbs susceptibility to influence techniques and sales tactics. That is, when preference for consistency is elevated, individuals attempt to persist with their current behaviors or tendencies and, thus, often neglect alternative perspectives. When they evaluate alternatives, they orient their attention to the past and not to the present.

Nevertheles, some complications to this perspective have emerged. In particular, if individuals express their opinions about an issue, they may be more susceptible to some persuasive arguments if preference for consistency is high.

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Matz and Hinsz (2003), some participants were asked to express their attitudes towards four issues. For example, they were asked to express the extent to which they support surface mining. Next, they read biased excerpts about these issues. These excerpts, for example, included information that highlights the problems with some activity, such as surface mining. In addition, these excerpts emphasizes that other students tend to condemn surface mining. Finally, after they read this material, participants again expressed their attitudes towards these issues. Other participants completed the same procedures, except they did not express their original attitudes before reading the information.

If participants had expressed their opinions before reading the information, preference for consistency was positively associated with susceptibility to persuasive arguments. That is, when preference for consistency was elevated, attitudes were especially likely to align with the information they received. If participants had not expressed their opinions before reading the information, preference for inconsistency was not associated with susceptibility to the arguments.

This finding is surprising& the authors had assumed that preference for consistency would encourage individuals to maintain their original position and curb susceptibility to influence. Nevertheless, perhaps individuals like to perceive themselves as knowledgeable. When asked to express their original opinion, they realized their knowledge about these issues was hazy. This inconsistency between their belief they are knowledgeable and their uncertainty about these topics might have been especially aversive when preference for consistency is high. To override this aversive state and to nullify this inconsistency, they might have been more motivated to acquire the information (Matz & Hinsz, 2003).

Dispensation of penalties

When preference for consistency is elevated, individuals are more inclined to punish transgressions of laws. For example, in one study, reported by Nail, Bedell, and Little (2003), preference for consistency was correlated with the extent to which individuals felt Bill Clinton should have been punished for his transgressions while president. Specifically, when preference for consistency was elevated, individuals endorsed the statement that Clinton should have been prosecuted for perjury after leaving office, assuming the evidence that he lied under oath was credible (Nail, Bedell, & Little, 2003).

Conceivably, when preference for consistency is elevated, individuals are more sensitive to the contradiction between the belief that law applies to everyone and the realization that Clinton might have violated the law but was not prosecuted (Nail, Bedell, & Little, 2003). These individuals, thus, would perceive prosecution as a means to redress the aversive state that such dissonance elicited.

In a similar study, some participants imagined they had been neglected by a friend (see Nail, Correll, Drake, Glenn, Scott, &. Stuckey, 2001). In one condition, the friend offered suitable reasons. In another condition, the friend offered inadequate reasons. Obviously, participants were more likely to derogate friends who offered inadequate reasons. Interestingly, this relationship was especially pronounced if preference for consistency was elevated. Presumably, positive attitudes towards a friend and inappropriate behavior by this friend elicit a sense of dissonance, especially when preference for consistency is high. To override this state, participants might derogate the friend and thus resolve the contradiction.

Aversion to ambivalence

When individuals experience an elevated preference for consistency, they feel especially uncomfortable when they espouse conflicting attitudes towards some issue or object. That is, ambivalence is experienced as an especially aversive state (Newby-Clark, McGregor, & Zanna, 2002).

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Newby-Clark, McGregor, and Zanna (2002), participants were asked to reflect upon the positive and negative implications of some issue separately. For example, they were first asked to reflect upon only the favorable aspects of capital punishment and asked "How favorable is your evaluation of capital punishment?" Next, they were asked to reflect upon the negative aspects of capital punishment and asked "How unfavorable is your evaluation of capital punishment?" A similar procedure was applied to elicit ambivalent attitudes towards abortion. To assess the accessibility of these attitudes, reaction times were recorded.

A formula was then applied to represent the level of ambivalence they demonstrated towards these issues. That is, very favorable, coupled with very unfavorable, attitudes toward these issues represent ambivalence.

Furthermore, the emotional states that were elicited by these ambivalent attitudes were assessed. These states are called felt ambivalence and a gauged by questions like "I have strong mixed emotions both for and against capital punishment" and "I do not find myself feeling torn between the two sides of the issue of capital punishment..." (reverse scored).

Ambivalent attitudes, as gauged by the formula, were positively related to this aversive state, in which individuals feel torn, especially if these conflicting attitudes were accessible (Newby-Clark, McGregor, & Zanna, 2002). Interestingly, this pattern of observations was especially pronounced when preference for consistency was elevated (Newby-Clark, McGregor, & Zanna, 2002). That is, when individuals experienced a preference for consistency, they felt torn whenever conflicting attitudes towards some issue were salient.

Antecedents to preference for consistency

Motivation to regulate negative states

Conceivably, a preference for consistency may, partly, reflect a need to regulate or circumvent unpleasant states (e.g., Brown, Asher, & Cialdini, 2005). That is, inconsistencies and contradictions do seem to elevate arousal (e.g., Elkin & Leippe, 1986)--and this arousal is unpleasant (e.g., Losch & Cacioppo, 1990). Thus, preference for consistency might represent a desire to minimize these aversive states. Specifically, from this perspective, an elevated sensitivity or aversion to unpleasant emotions might underpin this preference for consistency.

The results observed by Brown, Asher, and Cialdini (2005) vindicate this possibility. In their study, participants completed a series of questions that assess their principal socioemotional motives: self development, information seeking, or emotional regulation. A typical item to assess emotional regulation, for example, is "How important is to for you to avoid becoming emotionally upset". Motives to regulate emotions were positively related to preference for consistency, as measured by the preference for consistency scale (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995). The other motives were not related to preference for consistency.

Experience of negative states

The ongoing experience of negative states could also increase preference for consistency. That is, when individuals experience a negative state, they might be especially motivated to override these adverse feelings. A preference for consistency might elicit behaviors that provoke these unpleasant emotions. Thus, the experience of negative emotions might often elicit a preference for consistency (e.g., Brown, Asher, & Cialdini, 2005).

The study conducted by Brown, Asher, and Cialdini (2005) confirm this proposition. In this study, participants completed some questions that assess their experience of emotional distress or discomfort. Specifically, these questions examined the financial instability of participants, the complexity of their world, and the likelihood they might become the victim of crime. These upsetting expectations were positively related to preference for consistency, as gauged by the preference for consistency scale (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995).


Preference for consistency also seems to increase with age. Brown, Asher, and Cialdini (2005) showed the correlation between preference for consistency and age was .23.

This relationship between preference for consistency and age can be ascribed to socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 1993). According to this theory, as individuals grow older, they become more aware that time is limited. Their principal motivation is to enhance their emotional state and relationships rather than seek knowledge and growth. Emotional regulation becomes a more salient goal. Thus, older individuals might seek a preference for consistency, because contradictions in their cognitions obstruct this goal to maintain positive emotional states.

Alternatively, older individuals might also experience more upsetting or distressing events, because of physical constraints (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995), cognitive decline (Salthouse, 1991), or death of close family and friends (Carstensen, 1995). These negative events might elicit the need to curb unpleasant emotions. Preference for consistency might represent an attempt to fulfill this need (Brown, Asher, & Cialdini, 2005).


A preference for consistency scale was developed and validated by Cialdini, Trost, and Newsom (1995). Some items assess private consistency, sometimes called internal consistency, such as "I am uncomfortable holding two beliefs that are inconsistent". Other items evaluate public consistency, including "The appearance of consistency is an important part of the image I present to the world". Finally, some items represent other consistency& "I want my close friends to be predictable" is a sample item.

The overall scale comprises nine items. Alpha reliability is .89 (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995). The mean, median, and mode only slightly exceed 5 when a 1 to 9 scale is used, and the data were normally distributed around the midpoint (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995).

The validity of this scale was also established. Preference for consistency, for example, was inversely related to openness to experience (r = -.38). Furthermore, preference for consistency was positively related to personal need for structure and rigidity but unrelated to the Wonderlic measure of intelligence and to self monitoring.

Related topics

Factors that moderate the effects of cognitive dissonance

Preference for consistency is assumed to amplify the aversive states that cognitive dissonance provokes. Other factors are also assumed to moderate the effects of cognitive dissonance on behavior, such as self esteem (Aronson, 1969), self-monitoring (Snyder & Tanke, 1976), and extraversion (Matz, Hofstedt, & Wood, 2008). Conceivably, these factors might thus shape or affect preference for consistency.

To illustrate, extraversion might curb sensitivity to cognitive dissonance. In particular, extraverts may be less sensitive to negative or aversive events (e.g., Gray, 1991& Maio & Esses, 2001). Hence, they might not be as aware of the aversive states that usually coincide with cognitive dissonance.

Indeed, Norman and Watson (1976) conducted two studies to assess this proposition. Participants read a series of hypothetical scenarios. Some of the scenarios evoked dissonance& for example, participants were asked to imagine a person they did not like expressing attitudes that align to their own opinions. Other scenarios did not evoke dissonance. Participants rated the extent to which they perceived these events as pleasant. The dissonant scenarios were rated as less pleasant--but especially by introverted participants. Furthermore, after they read an essay that counters their opinion, introverts are more likely to adjust their position than extraverts, perhaps to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Matz, Hofstedt, and Wood (2008) also showed that introverts perceive conflicting cognitions as more aversive than do extraverts. After discovering that members of their group espoused positions that diverged from their own attitudes, introverts were especially likely to report feelings like uneasy, tense, bothered, and concerned.

Thus, both introversion and preference for consistency seem to represent an aversion to conflicting cognitions. Indeed, the correlation between introversion and preference for consistency is positive, albeit low (r = 22& Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995).

The psychological coherence principle

Jaspal and Cinnirella (2010) proposed the concept of a psychological coherence principle--representing attempts by individuals to reconcile conflicting identities. These authors demonstrated this principle in the context of two contradictory identities: Muslim and homosexuality. Conceivably, people could compartmentalize these identities, for example espousing either a Muslim or homosexual perspective, but not both, in particular settings. Nevertheless, given that Islam often underpins the meaning and perspectives of Muslim individuals, this compartmentalization is often difficult to sustain.

This concept of a psychological coherence emanated from identity process theory, developed by Breakwell (1988). According to this theory, people strive to fulfil four motives: continuity across time and contexts, the belief they are distinct and unique, a sense of control and self-efficacy, and a feeling of personal worth and self-esteem. Other studies have also referred to the importance of belonging and meaning (Vignoles, Chryssochoou, & Breakwell, 2000, 2002& Vignoles, Regalia, Manzi, Golledge, & Scabini, 2006). If any of these motives are compromised, individuals will need to adapt their identity--for example, by absorbing additional information into the existing identities, adjusting these identities, and re-evaluating these identities (see also Amiot et al., 2007, for four phases over which these identities are developed).

From the perspective of identity process theory, Jaspal and Cinnirella (2010) conducted semi-structured interviews to ascertain how homosexual Muslims reconcile their conflicting identities. Three key strategies were uncovered. First, after individuals contemplated whether or not their homosexuality was immoral, they would then sometimes highlight that Allah had "made me this way" or claim "It's not my fault God decided to make me gay, is it?". This perspective diminishes the conflict between their sexual and religious identity. Ascribing responsibility to Allah, however, might curb self efficacy but should increase self esteem, because they do not perceive themselves as a sinner.

Similarly, some individuals sometimes challenge the human interpretations of Koran. They maintain the Koran has been misconstrued by heterosexual people.

Second, some individuals minimize their homosexual identity, implying this behavior is transient. They do perceive homosexuality as immoral. However, they believe that Satan tempts Muslims, thus partly attributing this behavior to external sources. They do not challenge the Koran, perhaps to preserve continuity with their past. These individuals hope they may be able to resist these temptations in the future .

Third, some individuals ascribed their homosexuality, at least partly, to socialization in Britain. A few of these individuals conceded they were born gay, but felt that attempts to overcome their homosexuality are more difficult in Britain.

In short, Jaspal and Cinnirella (2010) maintained one of key principles of individuals was psychological coherence: a need to reconcile their conflicting identities. Coherence relates to consistency across concurrent identities& in contrast, continuity relates to consistency across distinct contexts. Hence, these two principles are distinct.


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Last Update: 7/7/2016