Mental Model: Using the Commitment and Consistency Bias to Ritualize Positive Behaviour

Imagine: it’s early Saturday morning; you’re snooze-forever exhausted after intensively exercising for 3 days in a row during the weekday; you need to go stomp out 32 km. Ouch. The good news is you don’t need to run 32 km! But we do. But that isn’t until mid-September when the Saturday training runs get to its zenith. Marathon training has descended upon us. The first week of training is done, with 4 runs in the bag totalling a distance of 24 km… about that one training run in mid-September. I’ve been reading Influence by Robert Cialdini. It’s great. I can see where Charlie Munger picked up many of his mental models in psychology through Cialdini. I’m going to experiment with the mental models of commitment and consistency bias to ritualize behaviour throughout our marathon training in order to hammer home habit formation through ritualization, which hopefully will make the long Saturday morning runs easier to tackle.


I’ve said it before: I believe fitness and finance are closely intertwined. I’ve discussed how habit formation is no different when it comes to building wealth or training your body, and used my half marathon training last year as an example.Personal Finance Half MarathonReplace this with savings rate and investment returns and you can see there isn’t much difference.

Commitment and Consistency Bias revolves around the idea that we humans are driven to be consistent in the things we do in life, and once we make a commitment to something, we are very easily influenced by the mere act of making that commitment.

Cialdini provides an example on studies done on gamblers:

Just after placing a bet, [gamblers] are much more confident of their… chances of winning than they are immediately before laying down the bet… in the minds of [gamblers]… prospects improve significantly once that ticket is purchased.

This makes no logical sense if the odds have not changed between the time of contemplation and purchase of the ticket. How could this be?

It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision… 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.

Apparently, psychologists have known for a long that the desire for consistency is a central motivator in human behaviour. The reason being:

Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. 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. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty… good personal consistency is highly valued in our culture… Without it our lives would be difficult, erratic, and disjointed.

As many bloggers know, the mere act of writing their thoughts, goals, and dreams “on paper” for the world to see actually helps them to achieve their goals. For example, a debt blogger writing about slaying their student loan and credit card debts is more likely than not to follow through with their declared vision as they would want to remain consistent with their declared intentions. I never thought of it this way – be it debt, early retirement, financial independence, etc – but all bloggers are, knowingly or unknowingly, exploiting this mental model of commitment and consistency bias to progress their goals.

Anecdotally, I know I’ve heard bloggers say before that they have been able to keep up their, let’s say, high  monthly savings rate by the mere fact that they are publicly writing about it. I’m sure writing this post will be an additional anchor that will further influence my decision on running this marathon in October by making sure I stay consistent with what I have written (the mere act of signing up and paying for the marathon was commitment bias enough for me to truly commit to running this thing).

But is it all good? No. Why?

But because it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we easily fall into the habit of being automatically so, even in situations where it is not sensible to be. When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous.

This occurs because:

First, like most other forms of automatic responding, it offers a shortcut through the density of modern life. Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore… There is a second, more perverse attraction of mechanical consistency… sometimes it is not the effort of hard, cognitive work that makes us shirk thoughtful activity, but the harsh consequences of that activity… There are certain disturbing things we simply would rather not realize. Because it is a preprogrammed and mindless method of responding, automatic consistency can supply a safe hiding place from those troubling realizations. Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.

This can be very dangerous because people who know how to exploit our weaknesses can use this bias to influence our behaviour.

How do you influence and exploit someone’s behaviour through commitment and consistency bias? In a nutshell, you would do the follow:

  1. Through the foot-in-the-door technique, procure a small, initial commitment.
  2. Make the commitment active and repetitive.
  3. Make the commitment public.
  4. Make it a difficult, effortful task to take part in the commitment.
  5. Make the participant take inner responsibility for their commitment.

These five steps, if unleashed on an unsuspecting individual, will create a “lollapalooza effect” of compliance. Kind of like a Jedi mind trick in the real world.

The book goes on to provide some real world examples of how these factors interact and influence our lives: pseudo-science believers, Communist prison camps during the Korean War, college initiations, car dealerships, and pressure sales.

Cialdini sums it up by stating:

It appears that commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behaviour when they are active, public, and effortful… [and when we] take inner responsibility for [our] actions.

Now, how does this all tie into marathon training? Well, you see, some of the Saturday runs during the next 4 months of training look a bit… long and arduous:

commitment and consistency bias marathon training

The longest I have ever run is 13.1 miles. Coincidently, this was the same distance as the half-marathon I’ve run once in my life.

Even though this is a novice training program, some of those longer training weeks look absolutely daunting. Running 30-40 miles seems challenging, to put it mildly.

So what I want to do is turn the tricks of the commitment and consistency bias on its head and use it to my own advantage. If it works on brainwashing people to believe and do rather outrageous things, why not use it to make myself believe and do outrageous things too… like running 30-40 miles a week at the height of training?

Here’s the plan:

  1. Calendars and stickers.
  2. Sacred running attire.

First, calendars and stickers. We have simple print out calendars that we stick cute little animal stickers on once we complete each day’s training:

commitment and consistency bias dont break the chain

The stickers leverage the commitment and consistency bias to a hilt. We don’t want to “break the chain” so to speak with our stickering. The stickering makes it competitive: neither of us wants to be the one to break the consistency of putting on stickers every day. And the repetitive act of putting on the stickers every day after training, combined with having the calendar “in the public” out in the kitchen where both of us can see makes this a great manipulative tool for staying committed and consistent with the training.

But I still worry about those long, long runs. So in addition to the calendar and stickers, I’ve decided to ritualize and make sacred certain attire specifically for Saturday runs.

Here is what I wear on the weekdays:

commitment and consistency bias ritual

And here is what I will only wear religiously on Saturdays:

commitment and consistency bias ritualization

I think that by making a ritual out of wearing a different, unique set of clothes just for the long runs, I will set an automatic triggering of commitment, that should in turn make my actions every Saturday consistent for the next 4 months.

I once conditioned a cow via a Pavlovian response to lift its hind right leg every time I approached it – I’m sure I could condition myself with the commitment and consistency bias to strengthen my resolve for running these unholy long runs.

*Oh yeah, one additional thing I forgot to add to my arsenal of only wearing religiously on the long Saturday runs:

It’s an Ultimate Direction running vest designed by Scott Jurek. It is really more for practical reasons – i.e. for me to be a camel on the long runs, carrying hydration and nutrition – than anything else. But it is another piece of exclusivity to Saturdays that should help solidify my commitment and consistency.

(Update: I did a more extensive review of the bag after having used this for over 2 months)

The commitment and consistency bias is an important mental model to add to your brain’s tool kit. Not only will you be able to manipulate and influence the people around you, you could even apply it to yourself to make you behave in certain (hopefully positive) ways.

If you haven’t already, I couldn’t recommend Influence by Robert Cialdini enough. I guarantee you will take away fascinating insights on human psychology.

Bonus: did anyone notice the little yellow circle on the left of the first photo? It’s Ajit Jain!

Extra Bonus: when we finished our run in Omaha, we happened to notice that Ajit was walking right by us so we totally took a selfie as evidence that one of the most important Berkshire Hathaway executives was mere steps away from us:

commitment and consistency bias ajit jain

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2 thoughts on “Mental Model: Using the Commitment and Consistency Bias to Ritualize Positive Behaviour

  1. Hi Kapitalust!

    Great article and I read your old one on marathon training and personal finance and totally agree there are many parallels.

    I think to prepare yourself for something as mammoth a task as shooting for financial independence it is a great idea to set a shorter term goal that initially seems impossible to you, and running a marathon fits the bill will. For most people at least! 🙂

    I’ve done one marathon before but have stuck to half’s since. I just enjoy them more! Your training schedule looks really intense, kudos if you keep that up. I find I needed far more time in between long runs for my legs to recover, but every person is different. I guess my point is don’t feel too bad if you do need to skip any of the runs because over training and injuring yourself is far worse. But again if you feeling OK then stick with it!

    Good luck!

    1. We just finished up the highlighted “OMG why?” section of the training and are starting to taper in preparation for the actual marathon in early October. This has been the most physically intensive training I’ve ever put my body through – my body aches every single day and the mid-week runs were a pain in the ass as my body has been so fatigued. But we’ve somehow managed to go through all the training and now feel confident of finishing the marathon somewhere between 4-4.5 hours.

      I think we’ll stick to halfs after this. After running a 18 and 20 mile training run, 13.1 miles seems very manageable.

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