Rule of Commitment and Social Norms

The Rule of Commitment
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Have you ever found yourself changing your mind in the middle of a purchase, only to feel pressured to stick to your earlier decision to buy the item? For example, have you ever agreed to buy a car, only for the salesman to change the terms of the sale right before you sign the paperwork? Was it easy to walk away, or did you feel a sense of pressure and obligation to stick to your original agreement?

Psychologists refer to this as the rule of commitment or norm of commitment. What exactly is the rule of commitment and how does it affect our behavior?

What Is the Norm of Commitment?

The rule of commitment is a type of social norm that is often used by marketers and salespeople to get consumers to make purchases. According to this norm, we typically feel obligated to follow through with something after we have made a public commitment.

Once we've made some type open pledge to something, we feel both social pressure and internal psychological pressure to stick to it.

Why? We like to feel that we are consistent in our behaviors and beliefs, so once we make some type of declaration, we often feel that we must stand by our original decision.

Sometimes this norm of commitment can work in your favor. If you announce that you are on a diet or trying to get in shape, announcing your plans to friends and family might help you feel pressure to stick to your commitment and achieve your goals. In other cases, this pressure to stick to your original declaration might lead you to make purchasing decisions that might not necessarily be in your best interest. 

The Norm of Commitment in Action

So how do marketers use this to their advantage? There are a number of different persuasion techniques that rely on this rule of commitment in order to gain compliance from consumers. One of these is commonly referred to as the low-ball technique. In this method, the salesperson might start by intentionally understating the cost of the item. Once you have made a commitment to making the purchase, the salesperson will then raise the cost of the item. Since you have already made the commitment, you feel obligated to stick with the purchase.

Another commonly used sales strategy is the foot-in-the-door technique. In this approach, the marketer starts by making a small request. Once you've agreed to this, he or she then makes a second much larger request. Since you have already made a commitment by agreeing to the smaller request, you then feel obligated to stick to the commitment and comply with the second appeal.

Making Commitment Work for You

The power of commitment can sometimes lead you to stick to decisions that are not necessarily in your best interest (like buying an overpriced item), but this tendency isn't always a bad influence on our behavior. In fact, you might even find that you can use the rule of commitment to help inspire positive behavior changes.

For example, imagine that you are trying to stick to a goal like giving up smoking, losing weight, or running a marathon. Making some type of public declaration about your goals, such as announcing it to your friends and family, might make you feel pressured to stick with it. Since you made a public declaration about your goal, the rule of commitment can help you feel pressure to stick with it until you achieve your objective.

1 Source
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  1. Michael J, Sebanz N, Knoblich G. The Sense of Commitment: A Minimal ApproachFront Psychol. 2016;6:1968. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01968

Additional Reading
  • Cialdini RB. Influence: Science and practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon; 2000.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."