One of the most difficult things for us to do is publicly admit when we are wrong, to revise our opinion in front of other people. In his famous book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, -Robert Chaldini- explains that human beings hate to reverse a previous commitment. “Commitment and Consistency” are so important to human behavior, according to Chaldini, that he names them as one of the 6 main categories of how to influence people in his best-selling book.
Among the various subcategories of Commitment that Chialdini discusses, he emphasizes that public commitment binds someone to a course of action nearly irreversibly. He writes:
An illustration of how public commitments can lead to doggedly consistent further action is provided in a famous experiment performed by a pair of prominent social psychologists, Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard. The basic procedure was to have college students first estimate in their own minds the length of lines they were shown.
At this point, one sample of the students had to commit themselves publicly to their initial judgments by writing them down, signing their names to them, and turning them in to the experimenter.
A second sample of the students also committed themselves to their first estimates, but they did so privately by putting them on a Magic Writing Pad and then erasing them by lifting the Magic Pad’s plastic cover before anyone could see what they had written. A third set of student did not commit themselves to their initial estimates at all; they just kept the estimates in mind privately.
In these ways, Deutsch and Gerard had cleverly arranged for some students to commit themselves publicly, some privately, and some not at all to their initial decisions. What Deutsch and Gerard wanted to find out was which of these three types of students would be most inclined to stick with their first judgments after receiving information that those judgments were incorrect. So all of the students were given new evidence suggesting that their initial estimates were wrong, and they were then given the chance to change their estimates.
The results were quite clear. The students who had never written down their first choices were the least loyal to those choices. When new evidence was presented – that questioned the wisdom of decisions that had never left their heads, these students were the most influenced by the new information to change what they had viewed as the “correct” decision. Compared to these uncommitted students, those who had merely written their decisions for a moment on a Magic Pad were significantly less willing to change their minds when given the chance. Even though they had committed themselves under the most anonymous of circumstances, the act of writing down their first judgements caused them to resist the influence of contradictory new data and to remain consistent with the preliminary choices. But Deutsch and Gerard found that, by far, it was the students who had publicly recorded their initial positions who most resolutely refused to shift from those positions later. Public commitment had hardened them into the most stubborn of all.
This sort of stubbornness can occur even in situations where accuracy should be more important than consistency. In one study, when six or twelve person experimental juries were deciding a close case, hung juries were significantly more frequent if the jurors had to express their opinions with a visible show of hands rather than by secret ballot. Once jurors had stated their initial views publicly, they were reluctant to allow themselves to change publicly.
We can probably all think of a moment when we made some sort of public statement and then clung to the position, even when evidence of our error was staring us right in the face! Even more than we’re probably willing to admit this about ourselves, lots of people in the room can conjure up the image of a stubborn friend, loved one, or spouse stubbornly refusing to admit defeat in an argument.
I’ll publicly admit that I am often the guilty party on this one. No dear, I really think the restaurant is this way, after 10 minutes of walking the wrong direction. Doesn’t win me any points in the game of life, I can tell you.
In any case, the characters that we have been reading about in this week’s parshah are now in this sort of situation. We get the short story of Tamar and Judah, and Judah’s sons Er and Onan. Tamar, according to Rashi, is an incredibly beautiful woman who is the daughter of a priest. Judah arranges for Tamar to marry his son Er. Things don’t go well, and Er dies, leaving Tamar childless.
According to biblical law, Tamar is married off to Er’s brother Onan. Onan also dies without giving Tamar any children. At this point, Judah should marry Tamar to his third son, but he decides not to do so. He orders Tamar to remain a widow. This is in violation of custom, but Judah sticks to his guns.
Tamar is in a pickle. TAWC explains that while she is sent back to live in her father’s house as a widow, she is still obligated to Judah’s family. The situation is quite unjust.
Tamar decides to take things into her own hands and shortly thereafter manages to seduce Judah, thereby becoming pregnant. Apparently during the encounter, Judah did not realize it was in fact Tamar that he had slept with. For explanation, the Talmud in the volume called Sotah, suggests that Tamar had always kept herself veiled in Judah’s presence out of modesty, and thus he didn’t know what she looked like.
Luckily, and quite brilliantly, before Judah left the motel room, Tamar grabbed Judah’s drivers licence and keys. By wallet and keys of course, I mean the ancient equivalent of the wallet and keys, the seal and the staff.
Some time later, Tamar has become pregnant and this was brought to Judah’s attention. He gets pretty angry and demands that Tamar be burnt for her harlotry. Tamar brilliantly counters by pulling out Judah’s wallet and keys and declaring “I got pregnant by the man who owns these!”
Now Judah is in a big predicament. He publicly declared that Tamar should have remained celibate earlier, and now he has publicly called her for her to be burnt. He could, as TAWC points out, simply make up a story about how Tamar got his keys and wallet, burn her, and save his own face. He has much greater social standing and could almost certainly get away with the denial. He could remain consistent in his public declaration.
OR, he could acknowledge Tamar’s claim and get egg on his face in front of the whole community.
I am in this position all the time. I can either admit was I wrong, be inconsistent and change my position, or stick to my guns and save face. When I know I’m wrong but I’m defending my position anyway, I can feel a little tightness in my chest. Its the fear of the humiliation of reversing my position publicly.
Amazingly, Judah admits Tamar is right! Note that he does admit that he is wrong, but simply Tzad’ka Mi’meni, she is more righteous than I am. In other words, she’s right.
Here, the Talmud volume Sotah jumps back in and explains what is going on. The Talmud comments that since Judah was willing to contradict himself in public and acknowledge Tamar’s claim, he sanctified God’s name. For his public acknowledgement, he becomes the progenitor of kings. For his public concession, he earns the right to be called by God’s name. Judah is spelled Yud-Hay-Vav-Daled-Hay.
What do we take away from this then? We learned, from the study by Deutsch and Gerard, that human beings hate to publicly acknowledge when we are wrong, we hate to be inconsistent. We also learned that this stubbornness allows us to be manipulated, as with the example of the Jury, which we spoke about some minutes ago.
Chaldini explains that this human tendency is exploited all the time by marketers, to get us buy things. By politicians to get us to vote for things. And by fundraisers to get us to donate to things.
From Judah we get a counter example. Quite a strong counter-example in fact. Judah’s ability to overcome his urge for consistency and admit his error allows the just cause to win out. TAWC says it is a sign of Judah’s maturation as a person.
I hope we can all learn, like Judah, to concede and be inconsistent. Its a skill we dearly need. I ask you, in a society where where our signature is our word, and our word is our signature, when we are asked to raise our hand in support of causes we don’t support, and where every fleeting thought is posted, emailed, or tweeted…
I ask you, when are we allowing our commitment to consistency sideline our commitment to principle?