As progressives, we tend to spend too much time trying to get people to think what we want them to think rather than to do what we want them to do.
In fact, we’ll often be more successful if we first focus on getting people to act, then focus on the beliefs behind that action.
Robert Cialdini explains why this is in the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” Chapter 3 of this book focuses on “commitment and consistency.” It shows how once somebody makes a public commitment or takes a clear action, they are then much more likely to think it was the right thing to do and to take similar actions in the future.
Here’s an example. At a racetrack, betters are likely to be much more sure of a horse’s chances of winning after buying a ticket then before. The action of buying a ticket and betting on a specific horse helps convince them that the horse will win.
What does this mean for community organizing?
It means that we should focus on getting people to take a clear action or to make a public commitment to the issues we’re working on.
Let’s take the war in Iraq. We could argue all day about the stupidity of the war just like we could argue all day about which horse will win in a race. And after all that talk, the person will still probably be more or less undecided.
Or, we could try to get someone to take an action (come to a rally, sign a petition, write a letter to Congress) saying the war is wrong. And just like betters are more sure of their horse after placing a bet, the person will be more solidly opposed to the war after taking an action. In both cases, they’ve made a commitment and their mind will try to be consistent with that action.
And here’s where I also get on my soap box about follow-up. After they take that first action, I see a window of time where you can come back to them and say, “Thank you for signing that petition. It’s important that there are people like you who are willing to speak out against this war. To keep moving on this, we need you to …” This follow-up reinforces that initial commitment and increases the person’s desire to be consistent.