Research shows that our past is a perfect predictor of our future. Keep doing what we have been doing does not only require the least effort, but also creates the least problems with our ego, since it keeps the consistency that we instinctively need.
In an experiment, researchers asked 2 groups of people to place a sign in the front yard of their home, saying “Please drive carefully”. Out of the first group, only 17% agreed to place it, while from the second, 76%. The two groups were identical except of one factor. Two weeks before, researchers had approached the 2nd group asking them to place a smaller sign in their home window, saying “Drive safely”. Almost everyone agreed to place the smallest sign.
This experiment demonstrates our inherent need to be consistent with what we have done in the past. A small step can be big enough to take a bigger one in the future, just to stay consistent with the first! Good sellers call this technique “foot-in-the-door”. The seller makes the customer to initially agree to something seemingly simple and easy (ie. give him/her a glass of water) so as to increase the chances of later agreeing to something more difficult (to allow him/her to sell). Having first shown that we are polite and friendly, it is very difficult later to be inconsistent.
Our desire to be consistent leads us to do even absurd things, precisely because our behaviour is determined by our instinctive System 1, the automatic pilot that is constantly looking for similar past cases, in order to avoid making new decisions. Our memory is perhaps the most important influencer of our behaviour. What we remember though, compared to what we think we remember, may be very different. Our brain has a very efficient, yet interesting way to store our experiences, which explains a lot about our irrational behaviour.
Our memory is not a cold hard drive recording every detail. This would be impossible if you consider the volume of data we receive from all our senses at any given time. Our memory is a living organism that ‘decides’ what to hold, judging by the chances of retrieving such information in the future. But more about memory next time.