Why is it so Difficult to Change Someone’s Behavior?
Most of us have someone in our lives — or those with whom we are less familiar — whose actions, routines, or attitudes we would like to modify.
Making meaningful behavioural changes with leaders has proven to be one of the most challenging tasks I’ve faced in my more than 30 years of teaching and coaching leaders.
You may have been in a position where you advised someone they “should” or “shouldn’t” do something.
But according to research, no matter how much we try to persuade, beg, threaten, or inspire that person to change, we will always fall short.
We seek to alter what William James (1842–1910), an American philosopher and psychologist, called a person’s “habitual centre of personal vitality.” That cannot be altered by anyone else. According to James, everyone has some broad interests, commitments, beliefs, or ways of being that help us get around in the world. These serve as our energy centres and have a big impact on who we are. These centres may alter throughout time, occasionally on purpose and other times as a result of ignorance or sloth. When people we admire, respect, or even love suffer as a result of their misaligned energy centres, it hurts much more.
Personal Energy Habits
Consider a professional athlete competing for a title. Relationships, education, and social engagement are a few examples of things that are prioritized over that one purpose. That objective and everything that must be done to get there is in their usual personal energy centres. It is commonly dropped when someone or something gets in the way of that goal. The brighter that centre burns, the closer it gets to being attained. If they are successful, they might go on to a more challenging but related objective, or they might take the outcome as unavoidable evidence that they are precisely whom they think they are.
If they don’t reach that objective on their projected timeline, it might spur them on to exert more commitment and effort. Some individuals may not perform as well. When a person’s life has been so intensely focused on one thing but the goal is not accomplished, an existential crisis may happen. Who is a person who has lost their identity? Athletes who are injured in their prime must decide how to live with this problem for themselves.
Think of another circumstance where a person starts to battle with substances or actions that become habits. At the height of an addiction, a person’s life is dominated by alcohol, drugs, and specific behaviours. Relationships, occupations, and opportunities have all been ruined, as well as dreams. Nobody intentionally sets out to develop an addiction, but with time, the need or desire for specific drugs or behaviours suffocates other aspects of a person’s life. Self-criticism, anger, and grief make up the last surviving source of personal energy.
The typical strategies of begging, cajoling, humiliating, and manipulating are ineffective in moving another person’s typical centre of personal energy in the situations of the athlete and the addict.
Despite our greatest efforts, we cannot influence another individual. It’s possible that our efforts will have the opposite of what we intend. The individual must be driven by their own desires.
How Attitudes and Behavior Change
According to Mark E. Bouton’s study “Why behaviour change is difficult to sustain,” was published in the journal Preventive Medicine techniques for changing behaviour include “extinction,” “counterconditioning,” “punishment,” “encouraging alternative conduct,” and “abstinence reinforcement” “tend to suppress, rather than erase, the original behaviour.”
Behaviour change is challenging, according to Donald Edmondson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. But maintaining healthy habits is one of the most important things people can do to live long, healthy lives. According to a recent study, almost 40% of the risk of fatalities that are early and preventable, like heart disease, cancer, and stroke, occur in the United States as a result of human behaviour.
Changing People’s Opinions by Making Them Believe Lies
Research has also shown that when someone has been consistently uttering lies or untruths, changing their minds can be exceedingly difficult.
A study by Doris Lacassagne and colleagues, which appeared in the journal Cognition,, showed that repetition can increase the perceived truthfulness of exceptionally convincing claims or lies. The more times they are repeated, the more resistant the person becomes to change and the more ingrained their views become. Their study and similar ones show that repeating a misleading claim increases its perceived truth value. This is known as the “truth-by-repetition (TBR)” effect.
The study was published in Political Psychology by D.J. Flynn and colleagues. People form opinions based less on the truth and more on their emotions, such as fear, scorn, and fury. New knowledge typically has no impact on people’s perceptions.
In an essay for the American Journal of Political Science Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge make the case that when faced with contradictory information, people tend to dismiss the evidence rather than re-evaluate their prior beliefs.
According to Keith M. Bellizzi of the University of Connecticut, “in an ideal world, sensible people who discover new material that contradicts their notions would study the facts and alter their attitudes accordingly.” However, that’s not how things usually operate in the real world. Partially to blame is a cognitive bias that may manifest when people encounter information that contradicts their beliefs.
According to Bellizzi, “people feel scared when presented with data that suggests their current notions are false, whether through the news, social media, or one-on-one chats. This response is especially effective when the beliefs being questioned are congruent with your political and personal identities. It can feel like an attack on you when one of your sincerely held ideas is challenged.
Confronting facts that conflict with your worldview may have a “backfire effect,” which can ultimately strengthen your original position and beliefs, according to research by Christopher A. Bail and colleagues, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, This is especially true with politically sensitive issues. Researchers have identified this tendency in various studies, including one on attitudes about vaccination programmes for children and opinions on policies to mitigate climate change.
What Stops Us From Changing Our Opinions and Attitudes is Due to the Way Our Brains Work
According to study, our brains are “hard-wired” to defend us and have a tendency toward negative. However, doing so might encourage you to hold unfavourable beliefs and attitudes. When you prevail in a debate or an argument, chemicals like dopamine and adrenaline are among those that are released. In his book The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure, Ian H. Robertson claims that they contribute to the enjoyment of sex, food, roller coasters, and winning a discussion in your brain. After that thrill, you feel fantastic, perhaps even invulnerable. Many people would like to have the opportunity to do so more frequently.
Additionally, when you are under a lot of stress or are feeling untrustworthy, your body releases the hormone cortisol. It can seize control of your executive functions, which psychologists refer to as your brain’s higher-order reasoning, logic, and reasoning processes. When you sense danger, the amygdala in your brain, which regulates your natural fight-or-flight response, becomes more active.
When these substances are rushing through their bodies during dialogue, people have a tendency to yell louder, argue, and stop listening. It’s challenging to hear another point of view after you’ve adopted that attitude. Even in the midst of fresh facts, it might be difficult to change beliefs and opinions due to the need to be right and the protective systems of the brain.
The Things That Must Change
What are the most efficient strategies to transform the centre and establish a new one? Although he is always clear that the compelling force must be a willingness to act differently, William James is useful in this regard.
In order to begin fostering the readiness to change, people should keep two things in mind, according to psychologist William James. The first is a clear understanding of how their present lives are lacking, harmful, or even incongruent for them.
Athletes may feel isolated from the rest of the world if they are unable to participate. The normal types of things that orient and ground people — families, friends, a satisfying work, and social engagement — might not exist. Perhaps the people who were in their vicinity during their happy days have disappeared into thin air. The majority of addicts become experts at listing all the ways they have messed up their lives, lost vital people and assets, and — possibly most importantly — lost themselves or their life’s objectives. Although it is necessary for change, this admission of their losses is insufficient.
The second component, according to James, is that people must have in mind a positive notion that they aim to aspire to or use as their points of reference in the world. These aspirations or fantasies of a decent existence may seem completely unreachable or perhaps impossible to those who are imprisoned in that circle of wrongness and incompleteness.
Athletes who have largely isolated themselves from everything but their sport are at a disadvantage since they are essentially beginning over. They lack fundamental skills that many people take for granted. They may need to consult others who have successfully adjusted in the past. They might need to start creating their constructive ideal using those stories as a guide or source of inspiration.
Those who struggle with addiction and actively seek therapy may recall happy moments from earlier in their own lives. They might be aware of the flaws in their present circumstances but still using them as inspiration to act differently in the future.
They can see the advantages, thus they are willing to change their behaviour. Others without a sense of history may need to look to people who have made the changes they want to see. Early on in our recovery, a lot of us hitchhiked on other people’s stories. We could start to see ourselves in those stories, which might motivate us to behave differently.
While none of us have the ability to change another’s natural source of personal energy, we can influence the conditions that will facilitate or prevent transformation. We make things harder for someone when we act in a way that keeps them stuck in a cycle of wrongness and incompleteness. Positive growth is enabled when we help someone determine the ideals they wish to uphold while constantly keeping in mind that our life could occasionally serve as that ideal.
The Power of Inquiry
The key to altering behaviour, according to a study that was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, is asking the right questions. Researchers identified a phenomena they dubbed the “question-behavior effect,” whereby posing a query about a potential course of action increases someone’s propensity to change.
Instead of telling someone — or telling yourself — that investing in a retirement fund is vital, ask them — or ask yourself — “Are you going to set aside money for retirement?” The inquiry serves as a subtle reminder of the value of investing to someone who isn’t saving any money.
People’s discomfort motivates them to change. When someone isn’t acting in a healthy way, the question serves as a reminder of their options.
According to research, asking questions effectively causes a wide range of behaviours to change significantly and persistently. Direct questioning increased people’s likelihood to exercise, give, and recycle while decreasing their likelihood to cheat.
The secret is to construct a question that forces responders to choose between a categorical yes or no answer. It’s interesting to note that researchers found the best means to apply the question-behavior impact were computer- or paper-and-pencil-based surveys.
Why It Works
The question-behavior effect can be explained in a variety of ways. I think it might have anything to do with cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when your ideal self and your true self are at odds. Because of this, even if you aspire to live a healthy lifestyle, it’s likely that your actions don’t align with those of a fit, healthy person. As a result, it would be awkward to respond negatively when asked if you intend to exercise frequently.
To assuage your apprehension, you’re most likely to respond “yes.” Your forecast that you’ll exercise may come true when it occurs.
Whether done on a computer or with a pen and paper, giving a yes or no response does not permit an explanation. Even if you want to say something like, “I plan to start exercising next month,” or “I will go to the gym once my schedule allows,” a yes or no question doesn’t leave any room for explanation. You must choose whether or not to commit.
The next time you feel the want to tell someone what they should do differently, consider replacing it with a yes-or-no inquiry. You might discover that it’s the simplest yet most potent strategy for encouraging long-term habit change.
Loyalty to Your Tribe or Group Can Prevent One from Changing
People who deny things like climate warming, the COVID vaccination, or Republican allegations that Donald Trump was “stolen” from office in the 2020 election are frequently seen in social media and mainstream media. Despite the facts and data being offered, these people nevertheless maintain their positions in the face of overwhelming rational evidence.
According to research, people usually create opinions based more on mood and affiliation with a group than on facts. How then do you change their perspectives?
Most of us have a strong need to cling to cherished opinions and convictions that keep us rooted in reality. When your opinion on a controversial issue simultaneously boosts your sense of group identity and positions you against fictitious opponents, it can be quite challenging to change your mind.
According to risk perception specialist David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really?, “We are social animals innately depending on our tribe for safety and security.” Any act of disloyalty makes you feel as though the tribe will expel you. When someone is already anxious, this effect is heightened.
The Reactionary Effect
When concerns do arise, it’s possible that they have the peculiar effect of having people tighten their hold even more.
The attacks on Trump have taught me something about myself, Donald Trump stated in a television interview. Because I was put in a defensive position, I have defended him and stated things that I don’t believe or support.
Research backs up the hypothesis that an arguer’s perceived adamance may be inversely related to their genuine conviction. In a Northwestern University study by David Gal and Derek D. Rucker that was published in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers found that people worked harder to persuade others of their preferred viewpoint the less sure they felt about their ideas on divisive matters (such as whether animal testing is acceptable).
Is it useless to talk to someone you disagree with if doubt commonly causes people to act without thinking instead of deliberating? Standard debates aren’t very fruitful, as you’ve probably discovered; if you start out attempting to change someone’s mind, you can wind up having the opposite effect. The inverse is also true: The less you try to persuade someone to agree with your viewpoint, the more freedom they’ll have to freely express it and perhaps even later change their mind.
Additionally, a fruitful exchange is more likely when there is a shared base of respect and friendship. In her project named Between Americans. Seattle author and artist Boting Zhang chronicles the friendships that form between Trump and Clinton backers over the course of a year. Hot-button topics do occasionally come up, but the conversation’s direction is typically determined by how intimate the individuals are with one another. Participants engage in more private conversation with one another.
Zhang argues that it’s critical to get to know the other person when conversations turn tense. Although she concedes that this may be easier said than done, she advises starting conversations of difficult topics with the idea that you won’t change the other person’s viewpoint. “That fine line between attempting to understand someone rather than trying to change their mind is a knife-edge balance,” the speaker said.
Changing Your Behaviors
The majority of us find changing our behaviour to be challenging. In this area of research, there is a wealth of knowledge about why sustained transformation is so difficult. The following eight major causes are listed:
- We are motivated by negative emotions. The opposite is true, despite the fact that it makes sense to think that intensely felt negative emotions like regret, humiliation, fear, and guilt should be able to motivate long-lasting behaviour change. Though they can make us think about all the things we’re not doing or feel as though we’re doing something wrong, negative emotions are poor motivators for long-lasting change. The least effective change agents were regret and fear, according to a study of 129 behaviour change researchers. Positive thinking is the only way to effect long-lasting change, no matter how cliche that statement may sound. You must be motivated to take on the challenge by positive, inspiring reasons.
- When we think incorrectly, we become caught in traps. An all-or-nothing mentality that says, “I’m going to charge in and change, and if I fail, that means I just can’t do it,” is frequently brought on while attempting to modify a behaviour. You are probably well aware that all-or-nothing thinking is a big cognitive bias and distortion. Since there is little prospect of retaining even the most remarkable burst of momentum to change behaviour, it puts us into untenable situations. (Take into account how rapidly gym memberships increase in January before declining by March.)
- Our goal is to consume the elephant completely. Regardless of the conduct, altering behaviour is a challenging undertaking that rarely succeeds totally at once. But we have to start somewhere, with programmes that are clear and measurable. Big and blurry must be replaced by small and clear. Instead of saying “I’m going to start exercising,” I’m going to start walking for 30 minutes down the street tonight after work. Each specific act represents a forkful of evolving behaviour, and a collection of such acts performed repeatedly over time results in a cumulative change. Behavior change research have shown that in order to have performance standards to measure ourselves against, we need specific habits and goals to support those habits and accompany those accumulated acts. Even such, though, ought to be accurate and reasonable.
- The toolbox is not utilized. If you want to fix your car, you need the right tools. Why would changing something about ourselves be any different? We need a few tried-and-true go-to’s to encourage long-lasting transformation, regardless of what you want to name them — tools, technologies, or anything. The absolute bare minimum criteria for altering our diet are learning about healthy eating practices and creating a practical plan to put them into practice. The plan may include keeping a menu cheat sheet in your phone’s notepad or adding daily reminders on your Outlook calendar. While some of these tools are exclusive to an individual, others are widely utilized and available to anybody who needs them.
- Too many changes are made. If you can commit to changing one behaviour over the long term and make it stick, that’s admirable. Trying to engage in multiple behaviours at once, though, is a definite way to drive them all of course. Attention, self-control, drive, and other resources we utilize to influence change are limited. The excessive number of change attempts results in unreasonable resource demands and the early failure of our projects. Even just one additional commitment to altering your behaviour is important because we often forget that the other aspects of our lives also demand those resources and keep spinning.
- We downplay the process. A procedure that takes into account all the pertinent aspects is necessary for enduring change to occur since change is never just one thing; it’s a collection of interconnected things. The important takeaway is that making long-term behavioural changes calls for action. A little time can be spent researching different behaviour change models, which is worthwhile. It’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that behaviour change should be more simpler than it actually is. It is a difficult, process-focused effort to even marginally alter the circumstance.
- We forget that failure is frequently unavoidable. One of the most persistent truths about behaviour change is that failing at least once — and maybe more than once — is a vital step in the process. If you try to change and fail, you’ve proven this. Failure teaches you more about what the next round will require of your attention and energy (and the next). Failure is considered in every model of the tried-and-true change process, and individuals who desire to change are encouraged to see failure as a stage rather than the end of the process or a reason to give up.
- We refuse to make a commitment and hold ourselves accountable. The best behaviour change research teaches us that if we don’t make a commitment to achieving whatever it is that we want to do, it won’t get done. This is perhaps the most important lesson. You must first make a commitment to yourself in order to do it. Having a responsible party might also help you keep your resolutions and monitor your progress. Think of your closest friend, a member of your family, or a colleague.
Providing Coaching to Those Who Want to Change
We are really good at setting goals, but we are not nearly as good at achieving them. Why? Many academic resources have been devoted to discussing the topic, including those in consulting psychology, management, and social psychology. The amount of time that every person who has ever set a goal but not achieved it has spent thinking about the subject must surpass even those efforts.
In a study that was published in the Consulting Psychology Journal , Elliot T. Berkman provides a conceptual framework to explain why behaviour change could be so difficult.
The coach starts by determining the problem’s nature. Is change being resisted by knowledge, skill, or capacity gap? Then, resources can be discovered to address those “way” issues. Another possibility is that the client knows what to do and how to do it but is unable to. Therefore, an incentive programme is needed. The options are also not mutually exclusive: Sometimes, developing one’s skills is just as important as finding motivation. Even in that circumstance, though, it can be beneficial to acknowledge the differences between the two and approach each separately.
Learning new information, abilities, and capacities requires executive function, which neuroscientists refer to as the “method.” We can only fully devote our conscious attention to one object at a time while using the executive function. Other objectives are placed on hold while the executive function is engaged to achieve one objective. There is a missed opportunity cost associated with building the road. That expense is reflected in the feeling of effort. Therefore, changing behaviour could be difficult because it calls for concentrating all of your limited mental resources on one goal while ignoring others.
What about circumstances where the knowledge and skills are there but the will is not? Why is it sometimes so hard to convince yourself to do something you know you can do? In his essay, Berkman explores how prior experience has a big impact on reward value as well as the connection between motivation and reward value. The crucial significance of this biological truth is that new behaviours are rarely as motivating as ones that have previously been rewarded. Why, for instance, try that novel activity when you already know that watching Netflix will be enjoyable whether it feels good or not?
People do pick up new habits, and they do so for a number of different reasons. Learning new behaviours can be gratifying, but they often come in last place when compared to previously mastered alternatives. The key for coaches and consultants is assisting clients in finding engaging ways to interact with additional obligations.
In order to maximize reward with personal sources of value, one such method, according to Berkman, is to link the new behaviour with fundamental concepts and values that are crucial to a client’s identity.
P. Wesley Schultz and colleagues have shown in Psychological Science that there is a second technique to improve reward with social value by employing social norms and interpersonal ties to increase the worth of a goal. Since they have the potential to remain much longer and be more applicable to everyone, both of these scenarios offer a benefit over tangible objects like money. We all share core values and give a lot of thought to our social relationships, but money is finite and has different meanings for each of us.
Strong leadership and business-based qualities that are difficult to measure include honesty, integrity, and thoroughness. It is the coach’s responsibility to develop these traits in leaders so they can behave more appropriately.
Coaching with a behavioural focus aims to assist clients in changing their behaviour. Cognitive behavioural coaching is a potent technique that draws on psychological ideas and research. It is a collection of strategies, drills, techniques, and other activities that coaches use to help clients identify and counteract self-defeating attitudes, feelings, and behaviours.
It originated from and developed from two different processes. The first was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which professor and psychiatrist Aaron Temkin Beck described in its contemporary form. Second, the rational emotive behavioural therapy (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis is more constrained.
The foundation of CBT is the notion that our ideas affect how we feel about things. We can change how we see things, which will change how we feel and how we act.
Here are a few examples of behavioural coaching methods in action:
- Help the client understand that every decision has consequences, whether positive or negative, for both the client and others.
- Focus on performance rather than personality quirks.
- Take into account how your activities will affect both you and other people
- Concentrate your research on desirable actions.
- Consider the language (self-talk) one uses to describe their actual and desired behaviour.
- Verify whether the client’s desired actions and current values are in harmony.
- Take into account any restrictive self-beliefs that can prevent behaviour modification.
- Obtain the client’s design and action plan for desired behaviours, including with justification and responsibilities.
My Findings after 30+ Years of Coaching Hundreds of Leaders
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with, trained, and coached leaders in a variety of businesses, and I’ve discovered that self-awareness is one factor that can either hinder or help them improve their behaviour. The ability of the leaders to improve their behaviour was higher when they had heightened self-awareness, which includes accurately viewing themselves and being receptive to input from others.
Leaders who were resistant to change were individuals who lacked self-awareness, had substantial blind spots, or were unwilling to accept criticism from others. One of the most successful tactics I used as a coach was to help the leaders become accurately self-aware and act on that understanding.