Lowballing: Some Random Iowa Energy Users, and how my Dad tricked me into getting ‘A’s

How can we influence and persuade others into doing the things that we want?

This is a popular question among diverse groups:  from politicians, to marketers, to managers, to students, to even parents raising a child.

Here is one important  lesson I learnt from my book of the month, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini: we commit better to our responsibilities in the absence – or in some cases, in just an iota – of extraneous strong pressures.

The book explained an insightful study carried out by some psychologists in 1980:

At the beginning of a winter season, a group of energy users in Iowa were trained on energy saving techniques; they were persuaded to save energy; and they all agreed. However, the researchers found that at the end of the winter, they failed accomplish the goal.

The study was replicated for a similar sets of group, except for the addition of a public recognition reward for any household with substantial energy savings. As you might have presumed, there was a surge in energy savings.

After the compliance, the reward was then intentionally withdrew by the researchers.  A reasonable hypothesis to put forth is that there will be a drop in energy savings at this point. On the contrary, they did not only maintained their present energy savings but it did actually increased.

So, what happened? In short terms, psychologists will say “their commitment grew their own legs”

Here is the book:

…These people has been lowballed into a conservation commitment through a promise of newspaper publicity. Once made, that commitment started generating its own support: The homeowners began acquiring new energy habits, began feeling good about their public spirited efforts […] began appreciating money saved on utility bills […] with all these it is no wonder that the commitment remained firm even after […] newspaper publicity  was kicked out”

As I was reading through this study, a similar personal experience came to memory.

Here is my little story:

My change was not over the winter, and has nothing to do with energy saving, it was during my transition from primary school to high school. In the earliest days of my primary school my academic performance was abysmal, but it got pretty good after my transition to high school and continue to soar ever since.
Just before the ‘transition’ I remembered my Dad promised me several gifts, most notable was  N1,000 note, only if I assume the first position in my class (it used to be a lot of money in those days). While I remembered achieving the feat on several occasions, I can’t remember my Dad giving me the N1,000 note (wittingly or otherwise, however, I will list towards the latter).

In spite of his failed promises that did not  negatively affect my subsequent performances, in fact, I successfully transformed myself into an ‘A’ machine. Just like in the case of the energy users, my commitment grew its own legs.

And how did this happen?

I began to see myself as ‘book smart’; friends hailed me for my grades; and I was very, very popular at the right quarters . This metamorphosed my self-image, and the consistency pressure began to form.

The West African, Yoruba proverb “Akin yago fun elesin ana” (One does not pave the way for the horse rider of yesterday) explains this pressure.

Social Psychologists call this compliance tactic – lowballing.

In summary: 1), make a promise to ensure compliance; 2), the compliance may generate personal commitments; 3), retract the promise; and 4), hopefully the commitments now have their own legs.

Just like any other tactic, lowballing is not a panacea for compliance.

An obvious pre-requisite for the success of lowballing, is the generation of skin in the game by the agent. In the case of our Iowa friends, it was, partly, that drop in energy bills, in my case, it was the transformation of self image.

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