Too Tired to Change

by Vicki on February 25, 2011

Just over a month ago, Trudy wrote a post on the learnings we have gleaned over the years on change. One of the aspects that has fascinated me as we have helped organizations and individuals navigate change is that we consistently find that even those who clearly desire change have a very hard time of changing.

Think, for example, of all the change initiatives you have likely started in your own life – to exercise more, to worry less, to be healthier, to stick to a budget, to tidy up your desk once a week, to not obsessively check email…the list of changes we plan to take on is endless.

So why in the face of obvious benefits of change do people largely fail in their efforts?

I decided to investigate this further so as per usual, I turned to the experts and found a nifty book written by the Heath brothers (Chip and Dan) titled “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard”. I am currently only half way through the book but there is one idea they present that has truly captured my attention. They assert that people largely fail in their attempts to change because they are mentally exhausted.

Their argument is that change efforts require the changee to interrupt behaviors that have become automatic – a given way of engaging, responding, or thinking. Bumping what was once a well practiced automatic behavior into the realm of conscious thought zaps your cognitive resources and so after hours or days of continually monitoring yourself and trying to take up or stop a given behavior, you run out of steam to continue and fall back into the old behavioral pattern.

Turns out their thinking is supported by a number of psychological studies that have shown that self-monitoring really is mentally exhausting. For example, Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) found that people who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates subsequently quit faster when trying to solve unsolvable puzzles than people who had not had to exert self-control over eating (i.e., people who were able to eat the chocolates right away).

Interesting ideas…makes you think about past failures to change in a new light. Now what can we do about it?

My next post on Switch will be a more thorough review of the ideas presented in the book. Based on what I’ve read so far, I am optimistic that the authors will offer some practical, simple steps to maximize chances of success with change initiatives. Stay tuned!

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, Vol. 74, No. 5, 1252-1265.


The Negativity Bias

by Vicki on April 16, 2010

There are so many social psychological theories that have incredibly powerful implications for the world of business and for life in general. Through our blog, I hope to share some of these with you.

Today’s concept – the “negativity bias”.

The negativity bias refers to an asymmetry in the way we perceive good and bad information in that we give more weight and consideration to bad than we do to good:

The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good (Baumeister et al., 2001).

Researchers have hypothesized that we are programmed to give more weight and attention to bad versus good information since it is adaptive to our survival (i.e., bad gets more of our attention so that we can act quickly in response to threats).

What is the impact of this bias in the context of every day life? Unfortunately, quite significant:

  • Negative impressions are quicker to form than positive ones. The same goes for negative stereotypes (and they are much harder to dispel)
  • Overall, negative events (e.g., losing money, losing clients, getting criticism, exposure to sad news) will have greater impact on individuals than positive ones (e.g., winning money, gaining clients, getting praise, exposure to happy news)
  • Within relationships, negative acts have more impact on relationship quality than positive acts. For example, it may take as many as five compliments to undo the damage done by a single insult.
  • Among spouses, levels of distress, but not affection, predict subsequent divorce

Thankfully, researchers assert that many good events can overcome the effects of a single bad one.

So, the next time your initial reaction is to be short with a co-worker, a customer or even your spouse – take pause and consider the consequence of your response.

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Cacioppo, J.T., & Berntson, G.G. (1994). Relationship between attitudes and evaluative space: A critical review, with emphasis on the separability of positive and negative substrates. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 401-423.

Cacioppo, J.T., Gardner, W.L., & Berntson, G.G. (1997). Beyond bipolar conceptualizations and measures: The case of attitudes and evaluative space. Personality and Social Psychological Review, 1, 3-25.

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