Bait and Switch, a common psychological blind spot

Rama Nimmagadda
5 min readJan 8, 2022


Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Recently my twelve year old son and I went to watch Spiderman in the theatres (yes first movie in a theatre after two years for my son). We went by auto (autorickshaw/rickshaw/tuktuk) which costed us Rs 75/- (theatre was not too far from our apartment). Movie was good — my son loved it and on our way back, after boarding the first auto that was willing to take us home, the auto driver asked for Rs 150/- as fare. The price was unreasonable and also I did not like that driver waited until we sat in his auto before springing a high fixed asking price on us. We de-boarded the auto, despite protests from the driver to offer my price (he was expecting haggling). We took the next auto available. I then informed my son about the psychological technique that the first auto driver used on us — “the bait and switch” technique — could also be referred to as “throwing a lowball” technique. While the auto driver may not be formally aware of this technique, it is part and parcel of “auto” culture in Pune and “sales” culture all around the globe. Expectedly my son was least bit interested in this boring psychological lesson.

Today’s blog is about a related important psychological subroutine that we, human beings, are born with — thanks to circumstances of our evolution.

The bait and switch technique has been addressed by Robert Cialdini in his bestselling book — “Influence”. He called this influence, “Commitment and Consistency”. One of the examples he gave is when a new car dealer, after having convinced a prospective buyer of a car, explaining the virtues and convincing the prospect perhaps over a few days or hours, at the last minute springs up an additional cost element of a few hundred dollar that he previously missed including in the bargain price — admitting it to be a result of an “overlooking” error or a computer glitch or something like that. By this time, the prospect has made up his/her mind on the car and already confessed as much to the salesperson and so goes ahead with the purchase anyway given that a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to the total cost of fifteen or twenty thousand dollars of the car.

This “influence” manifests often in our lives:

è During house purchases, it is not uncommon to see cost line items add up as the sale gets finalized — cost of parking space, floor rise costs, club house costs etc

  • Amazon “Sale” events (for that matter any cyclical/festive “sale” events): Many of us end up buying needless items after having been lured to the sale event by tempting low prices on a few items
  • News articles: Most news headlines are well crafted click-baits that lure readers to the article only for the reader to realize that he/she has been had by the title as the article body does not substantiate the headline sufficiently or at all
  • Movie trailers: Trailers are made to entice viewers into watching the movie — whereas most times, movies don’t measure up to the hype created by the trailers
  • Stock Market purchases: One of the most common ways that people lose money in the stock market is by holding onto losing stocks even in the face of disconfirming evidence
  • Most instances of “timeshare” investments are excellent examples of smart sales persons using this technique on gullible (pretty much all of us) prospects
  • New roles at work: Many times supervisors/managers inadvertently use this technique while assigning undesirable work projects to their team members

“Never say anything about yourself you do not want to come true.” — Brian Tracy

While “Bait and Switch” technique is a particular instance of the “Commitment and Consistency” influence, I think that this influence is the basis for one of our most common biases: “confirmation” bias.

So why are humans so prone to this “influence” — those whose actions are not consistent with their beliefs and image are considered unreliable. Unreliable members were not accepted by our hunter-gatherer societies and without the aid of the rest of the group, such outcast members did not survive for long. Hence we are strongly wired to exhibit consistency even when it comes at the expense of accuracy.

According to Cialdini, this heuristic (“being consistent with our previous commitment”) makes sense because

  • It absolves us of having to expend costly mental energy in constantly processing new information and updating our views
  • It also provides us safe hiding place from unwelcome consequences of thinking — particularly when new information shows that our previous views were erroneous. It allows perpetuation of wishful thinking.

The more publicly a commitment is done, the more likely we will try to be consistent with it. Even in instances when the commitment is not made publicly, so long as there is a chance for it to be made public (like if we have a written record of our commitment), we hold ourselves to be consistent with that.

Also, the more effort involved in making a commitment, the more we remain consistent with that.

“Self-image sets the boundaries of individual accomplishment.” — Maxwell Maltz

We get bookended internally and externally towards being consistent. There will be pressure internally to align our self-image with our actions and there is pressure externally to align others’ expectations and image of us to our actions.

So, how do we address this menacing and powerful influence: by saying “no”, according to Cialdini. Being objective and not committing is the best way out. This is, however, much easily said than done. I was able to say “no” to the auto guy even though I comfortably sat in it along with my son only because I was able to recognize what was happening. This was a small, insignificant instance and I got lucky that I remembered about the technique. In more subtle and insidious instances, I’m sure it will be much harder to recognize and say no.

Also, it is best to avoid taking up sides publicly — democrat vs republican, religious vs atheist — else you may end up agreeing with and defending all the tenets of your favoured category just to be consistent with your earlier identification with a certain category — particularly important in today’s social media world where everything is shared and recorded for posterity.

I think if we make conscious efforts to recognize the use of this heuristic in our day to day life, over time, there is a good chance that we would have built a decent psychological defense against it.

Negating this influence is one thing but is there a way to exploit this? Surely. When a goal is very important to you, you can significantly increase the likelihood of fulfilling it by writing it down and announcing it to your friends and family.