The Inconvenience of Change: Psychology of Change [Eva Rykr]

The Psychology of Change

When hearing about change, the concept of inertia comes to mind.  Imagine a hockey puck and the level of force it takes to make it move initially. Then imagine the level of force it takes to stop one that’s coming fast. Contrast both of those scenarios to the effort it takes to keep a puck moving or to keep it still. Therein lies the difficulty of change. Well, human behavior is not too much different.

Why is change so inconvenient? This is a deep question and one I don’t have an immediate, fast-and-short answer to. I can, however, talk about the basics of one theory on the psychology of change and what is necessary for behavioral change to occur on an individual level.

First, let’s get the immutable factor out of the way. There is variety in personality dispositions. Some people are born to love change, innovate, adapt quickly, and seek new experiences while others are genetically predisposed to stick with a routine and follow the way it’s always been done. Neither is right or wrong and most people fall somewhere in the middle. It’s just how our brains come wired. It’s called the Openness trait, and it is a global dimension of personality. Your level of openness predicts your habits and tendencies — over time, and in general. Key point here is that this is just a broad generality, however, and does not predict well how we behave in specific situations.

Intention + Ability = Change

Behavior depends on two things: intention and ability. It’s kind of a given that you have to have ability first. If you don’t know how to read, you will never read that book, no matter how sincere your intentions may be. So then it seems that intentions should have a direct correlation with behavior. The more strongly you intend to do something, the more likely you should be able to accomplish it. Not quite. The thing is, in our minds there is no difference between actual inability to change versus perceived inability to change. That’s right, the “if you don’t think you can do it, you can’t” adage has a scientific basis. Actually, it’s even more basic than that. If you perceive an action to be difficult, then chances are you won’t even try.

Here’s an example of perceived ability and how it affects behavior: Two people have equally strong intentions to start a blog. If both try to do so, the person who is confident that he can master this activity is more likely to persevere than is the person who doubts his ability.

Here’s an example of intention and how it affects behavior: Two people have equal ability to start a blog. The one who is motivated to do so and makes a plan to have it up and running by the end of the month is more likely to become a blogger.

Now the question becomes, what influences our intentions to change? In addition to perceived ability to change, there are two other important factors.

Positive Attitude towards Change

Our attitude toward the change plays a role – do we see change as favorable or unfavorable? This is a big one. This is what people are talking about when they say you must want to change. This is what 12-steppers mean when they say admitting you have a problem is the first step. If you do not see the end result as a favorable outcome, you are much less likely to put forth effort on actions that will get you there. The second factor that determines our intentions to change is others’ attitudes toward the change – how much social pressure exists to either change or not change?

Caveats

Before concluding that that’s all it takes, I want to mention two exceptions. The first is convenience and the second is the action gap.

Circumstances not conducive to habit formation can get in the way of a change in behavior.  Sometimes the inconvenience of change is just too inconvenient. If you can make it more convenient or can shift your attitude to incorporate the overall benefits despite the inconvenience, you will have a better chance at success.

Lastly, when there is a longer time gap between intention and action, change is less likely to occur. So if you intend to do something, do it now. Quick. Before you talk yourself out of it or change your mind.

Strategies – Automaticity and Consistency

Automaticity

An option to deal with the inconvenience of change is to make it automatic. Our brains have functions for automatic processing and a controlled processing. Whenever you take something that is a controlled action and make it automatic, you are more likely to follow through. Program your brain with a conditional function… if X, then Y or when Y, then Z. An example of this is “when I get home from work, then I will go to the gym.” “If I drink out of a disposable bottle, then I will recycle it.” Make these rules ones you operate by, over and over. Don’t be afraid of sticking an exit clause in there, but do not get in the habit of spontaneously aborting your plans.

Consistency

Not only is the strength of your intention important, but consistency over time is a way to make it stick as a habit. As a bonus, consistency contributes to and feeds off of automaticity.

The Bottom Line

The good news is that our intention to change is the biggest predictor of change.

There ya go. Instead of trying to just somehow create change, you now know you can do any of the following to make a difference:

  1. improve attitudes
  2. enhance ability
  3. shift the social norms
  4. eliminate barriers to convenience
  5. close the action gap

You can now go change the world!

This post doesn’t cover a comprehensive view of change from a psychology perspective, just one of the popular theories focusing on individual behavior. When you get a group involved, it gets a little more complicated. Alternatively, research from goal setting, expectations, persuasion, communication, leadership, motivation, decision making, group dynamics, and training literature can also inform us about change.

Additional Research:

Eva RykrAuthor Bio: Eva is an Organizational Psychologist and the Director of Learning at EQmentor. She has a passion for applying insights from the world of psychology to make work (and life) better. As the author of iOrgPsych, Eva provides a psychological perspective on business. I truly believe Eva is one of the most thorough and interesting writers I’ve come across – I challenge you to read a post on her blog that doesn’t teach you something or inspire new and innovative thinking within yourself. She continually stimulates thought and conversation, asking the questions, “Why do we do what we do?” and “How can we do it better, both personally and professionally?” Swing by her blog, and say hello to her on Twitter: @EvaRykr


22 Responses
  • rikin Reply

    Eva – this is, well it’s just great really because I kind of felt like I was back in one of my psych classes in uni – in a good way.

    There almost seems to be a ‘tipping point’ of intent. For example, I have the ability to play guitar and the intent to become a rockstar. That’s great but my intent better be really powerful in order to actually DO something about it. I guess that area is still a little gray, at what point and how is that point defined/recognized?

    • Eva Reply

      I like the tipping point thought! I guess it’s like a balance scale where the stronger your intent, the less ability you need and the greater your ability, the less intent you need. What level do you need of each? Who knows, that’s the $1M question. So that area may always be gray. It’ll depend on you, your situation, and behavior in question.

      In your example of playing the guitar and being a rockstar brings in extra complications because being a rockstar is not 100% under your own control.

      • Morgan Ives Reply

        I think that the “control” idea is a key element here. Sometimes, with all of the ability and intention to change there are circumstances out of one’s control that make it impossible. So, is the definition of ability here an intrinsic, internal ability (like the ability to draw), or an overall ability that takes into consideration social situations, economic status, and any external factors? If the latter, then perhaps change is often difficult and inconvenient due to external factors out of one’s control that hinder ability. This calls to mind the phrase “poverty is a cycle” – often it is not the internal ability or intention that hinders us but the external.

        i hope that this makes sense – I have not written about psychological principles in quite some time :)

        • Eva Reply

          Hey Morgan, thanks for the response, it makes complete sense and it made me think a little harder about what I wrote! When I wrote the post I was thinking of it as an individual ability, but you make an excellent point that external factors do make change even more inconvenient. Your comment made me think of that quote, “accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can” … I took an very individual-focused perspective in this post so it’s truly focused on what you CAN do to make a change. You can change your own behavior, but not necessarily someone else’s and a change to the external factors will likely take more than a one-person effort.

  • rikin Reply

    Eva – this is, well it’s just great really because I kind of felt like I was back in one of my psych classes in uni – in a good way.

    There almost seems to be a ‘tipping point’ of intent. For example, I have the ability to play guitar and the intent to become a rockstar. That’s great but my intent better be really powerful in order to actually DO something about it. I guess that area is still a little gray, at what point and how is that point defined/recognized?

    • Eva Reply

      I like the tipping point thought! I guess it’s like a balance scale where the stronger your intent, the less ability you need and the greater your ability, the less intent you need. What level do you need of each? Who knows, that’s the $1M question. So that area may always be gray. It’ll depend on you, your situation, and behavior in question.

      In your example of playing the guitar and being a rockstar brings in extra complications because being a rockstar is not 100% under your own control.

      • Morgan Ives Reply

        I think that the “control” idea is a key element here. Sometimes, with all of the ability and intention to change there are circumstances out of one’s control that make it impossible. So, is the definition of ability here an intrinsic, internal ability (like the ability to draw), or an overall ability that takes into consideration social situations, economic status, and any external factors? If the latter, then perhaps change is often difficult and inconvenient due to external factors out of one’s control that hinder ability. This calls to mind the phrase “poverty is a cycle” – often it is not the internal ability or intention that hinders us but the external.

        i hope that this makes sense – I have not written about psychological principles in quite some time :)

        • Eva Reply

          Hey Morgan, thanks for the response, it makes complete sense and it made me think a little harder about what I wrote! When I wrote the post I was thinking of it as an individual ability, but you make an excellent point that external factors do make change even more inconvenient. Your comment made me think of that quote, “accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can” … I took an very individual-focused perspective in this post so it’s truly focused on what you CAN do to make a change. You can change your own behavior, but not necessarily someone else’s and a change to the external factors will likely take more than a one-person effort.

  • Matt Reply

    Eva – I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your writing style. Yes, it is a lot to take in (and it probably scares some people away because it IS a more technical perspective to the topic) – but you present so many interesting and relevant ideas here – I wish more would really take the time to sit down and read this, take it in, and apply it to their own lives – because there is a lot to be learned.

    Taking a look at your five step program:

    1. Improve Attitudes: You can dance around the issue all you want, but the bottom line is, to enact change you have to WANT to change – the intent has to be there, and your attitude has to be positive – you have to genuinley believe that the outcome of the said change will provide favorable results.

    2. Enhance Ability: Once the intent is there, you have to gather to tools and the knowledge to make change a reality. As you said, no matter how much you want to read, you can’t do it if you don’t know how.

    3. Shift the Social Norms: This is a big one. Change involves a unique way of thinking – you almost always have to step outside of your comfort zone, step outside of what is seen or what YOU see as socially acceptable. Once you start thinking outside the box, and your actions do the same, your able to lead by example and truly be a proponent of change.

    4. Eliminate Barriers to Convenience: This is where a lot of people get caught up, I think. They want to quit their job, so they seek out to do so, but then they start thinking ‘I probably won’t find anything else, at least I have a job, I’ll just stay here’. This illustrates the point that I believe – which is that the largest barrier is OURSELVES. Once we’re able to overcome our own doubts, our potential is limitless.

    5. Close the Action Gap: This is where you stop thinking and start doing – it’s when everything comes together and the change you want to see becomes a reality. Some of us never get to this point with a lot of things we WANT to change – but when you take a step back and look at it in a step-by-step perspective, you realize that almost everything comes from within – change starts inside our own mind – and it’s pretty amazing what one mind can enact and inspire others to do.

    Again, I love this post Eva – very articulate, well researched, and extremely interesting. Thanks so much for being a part of this series!

    • Eva Reply

      Awesome addition to the post Matt… five step program, I like it! My writing style definitely leans toward the more technical/tactical and your writing style is more inspirational so I think your comments add a nice balance to this perspective. Even though the post is research-based, it’s definitely not the be-all end-all of individual behavioral change … just one way of thinking about it.

      • Matt Reply

        Inspired by you, of course. Your writing style is very unlike the typical blogger, in a good way – You are able to incorporate your professionalism into your writing, and most importantly, you connect difficult topics to everyday people. Thanks again Eva – very well done!

  • Matt Reply

    Eva – I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your writing style. Yes, it is a lot to take in (and it probably scares some people away because it IS a more technical perspective to the topic) – but you present so many interesting and relevant ideas here – I wish more would really take the time to sit down and read this, take it in, and apply it to their own lives – because there is a lot to be learned.

    Taking a look at your five step program:

    1. Improve Attitudes: You can dance around the issue all you want, but the bottom line is, to enact change you have to WANT to change – the intent has to be there, and your attitude has to be positive – you have to genuinley believe that the outcome of the said change will provide favorable results.

    2. Enhance Ability: Once the intent is there, you have to gather to tools and the knowledge to make change a reality. As you said, no matter how much you want to read, you can’t do it if you don’t know how.

    3. Shift the Social Norms: This is a big one. Change involves a unique way of thinking – you almost always have to step outside of your comfort zone, step outside of what is seen or what YOU see as socially acceptable. Once you start thinking outside the box, and your actions do the same, your able to lead by example and truly be a proponent of change.

    4. Eliminate Barriers to Convenience: This is where a lot of people get caught up, I think. They want to quit their job, so they seek out to do so, but then they start thinking ‘I probably won’t find anything else, at least I have a job, I’ll just stay here’. This illustrates the point that I believe – which is that the largest barrier is OURSELVES. Once we’re able to overcome our own doubts, our potential is limitless.

    5. Close the Action Gap: This is where you stop thinking and start doing – it’s when everything comes together and the change you want to see becomes a reality. Some of us never get to this point with a lot of things we WANT to change – but when you take a step back and look at it in a step-by-step perspective, you realize that almost everything comes from within – change starts inside our own mind – and it’s pretty amazing what one mind can enact and inspire others to do.

    Again, I love this post Eva – very articulate, well researched, and extremely interesting. Thanks so much for being a part of this series!

    • Eva Reply

      Awesome addition to the post Matt… five step program, I like it! My writing style definitely leans toward the more technical/tactical and your writing style is more inspirational so I think your comments add a nice balance to this perspective. Even though the post is research-based, it’s definitely not the be-all end-all of individual behavioral change … just one way of thinking about it.

      • Matt Reply

        Inspired by you, of course. Your writing style is very unlike the typical blogger, in a good way – You are able to incorporate your professionalism into your writing, and most importantly, you connect difficult topics to everyday people. Thanks again Eva – very well done!

  • Sam Reply

    Eva, thank you for sharing your perspective, it’s so interesting to look at change in this way. I think that many of us who don’t have a background like yours, forget about some of our human tendencies. We get frustrated with people who don’t or won’t change without always considering if we’re employing the best methods to convince them. This post is like a map that we didn’t realize we had. Hopefully we can use your insight to better reach people and inspire change. Great post!

    • Eva Reply

      Exactly! I love that perspective… concern yourself with your own actions rather than someone else’s.

  • Sam Reply

    Eva, thank you for sharing your perspective, it’s so interesting to look at change in this way. I think that many of us who don’t have a background like yours, forget about some of our human tendencies. We get frustrated with people who don’t or won’t change without always considering if we’re employing the best methods to convince them. This post is like a map that we didn’t realize we had. Hopefully we can use your insight to better reach people and inspire change. Great post!

    • Eva Reply

      Exactly! I love that perspective… concern yourself with your own actions rather than someone else’s.

  • Shereen Reply

    Thanks for shedding light on the psychology of change Eva.

    I can see how mobilizing other areas such as improving ones attitude or ability, shifting social norms and removing barriers can begin to shift change into gear. People respond to change differently and adapt and adjust at different speeds but I guess once the wheel of change is set into motion it can only keep turning!

    • Eva Reply

      Mobilizing, yeah. As we discuss change, it really reminds me that you can only inspire change rather than forcing it. Yes, there’s stuff that makes it easier but the bottom line will always be people have to realize they want to change :)

  • Shereen Reply

    Thanks for shedding light on the psychology of change Eva.

    I can see how mobilizing other areas such as improving ones attitude or ability, shifting social norms and removing barriers can begin to shift change into gear. People respond to change differently and adapt and adjust at different speeds but I guess once the wheel of change is set into motion it can only keep turning!

    • Eva Reply

      Mobilizing, yeah. As we discuss change, it really reminds me that you can only inspire change rather than forcing it. Yes, there’s stuff that makes it easier but the bottom line will always be people have to realize they want to change :)

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