Why is change so hard... or why do our minds lie?

Thursday 23rd March 2017

As humans, it is easier for us to remain the same than it is for us to change, even when it is a matter of life and death.

Why do respondents often, almost instinctively, react negatively to new concepts that we show them?  It is vital that, as researchers, we understand some of these factors so that when we are investigating new ideas, new advertising, new markets or products we can design our research approach and analysis to mitigate these effects.

A recent talk from GoToMeeting focused on the science of change resistance and looked at some of the underlying reasons that are shaping this reaction.   Focussing on the psychology and neuroscience behind resistance to change, Dr Nicole Lipkin outlined some broad reasons why people find it so hard to accept change either individually or on an organisational level.

In a nutshell, she summed it up as 'Too busy to win, too proud to see and too afraid to lose', citing these as the three most common personal or professional derailers.

Her talk then focused on the issue of 'too proud to see'.  Neurolgically, the idea of change triggers the same part of our brains as when a gun is held to our heads.  This means that we find change really tough to deal with because it disrupts our equilibrium - it wreaks havoc with our brains which are hard-wired to like habit and routine behaviour.  We do not welcome change becuase it is a 'threat' and challenges the status quo

So why does this happen.  Of course there are lots of contributors to resistance, but Nicole focused on the most common psychological biases that influence our reaction to change. 

  • Exhaustion – the 'new' challenges our comfort zone, and this takes additional mental energy.  Change requires focus and mental effort and we become tired which hampers our ability to either care about, or make, decisions.  This is called ego depletion.  We often use habits help us make decisions quickly and easily and minimise our mental effort.  For example, it is well known that Steve Jobs wears same outfit every day – he has to make fewer ‘minor’ or mundane decisions to leave more energy for the major decisions that are required during the day
  • Sunk cost bias – the more time, money and energy you put into something the more time, money and energy you are going to invest in that person, place or thing
  • Status quo bias – the ‘why change’ argument.  We would rather do nothing than make a mistake and we favour current routines or current conditions because it provides a measure of comfort
  • Loss aversion – the pain of loss is almost twice as strong as the reward felt from gain.  The ‘what if’ mentality can stop us embracing change
  • Post rationalisation:  selectively we remember info that supports our view and resist information that contradicts this

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are – Anais Nin

What triggers these biases in the brain?  Our brains operate through mental models – our upbringing, life experiences etc. create our personal baggage which form a lens through which we view the world.  This affects our beliefs, how we think and how we feel – and how we react to change.  And this is unique to everyone – so each individual will have a different response. 

So how can we challenge this in our research?

  • Ask people what the worst that could happen is if this change did happen
  • Ask respondents to look at it in terms of what could be gained – why is this a good idea/ what is the opportunity (rather than simply allowing them to criticise it)
  • Take the emotion out of it – ask respondents to just consider the facts  
  • Think about emotional contagion – we are affected by the moods of those around us and this needs managing within a group situation so that it does not spread inappropriately

The talk focused on organisation change, but I think it is equally applicable to changing consumer or buyer mindsets when introducing them to new products, brands or communications.