Leo Tolstoy is credited as saying, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” This seems perfect evidence that resistance to change abounds. This resistance often occurs when the change is unwanted. Volumes have been written about dealing with resistance to change in the workplace. Employees are often viewed as being resistant to change. But that isn’t what this post is about. Industrial and Organizational (IO) Psychology deals with that. This post is about the resistance to change that exists even when the change is wanted and viewed as beneficial.
Studies indicate that even when faced with the possibility of death from heart disease, addiction, and other maladies, the group who makes significant lifestyle changes is small. Therapists’ offices are full of clients who know what to do to create positive change in their lives, yet do not. There are scores more people who are unhappy in their lives, know what might make them happier, and yet refuse to act. This begs the question: Why? And what can we do about it?
There is, of course, a fear of change. This is well established. People fear the unknown. This can inhibit making major changes, like leaving an unfulfilling job, marriage, or other relationship. This is normal and expected. Yet even when one knows the change will be beneficial and there are no apparent downsides, change is slow, or more detrimentally, never comes.
There are a number of reasons for this. As I wrote in, “Why Don’t You Want to Feel Better?”, sometimes the suffering offers a reward. The suffering may also provide a meaning or purpose for one’s life. Either of these may keep the individual from changing.
Shaul Oreg discussed four sources related to personality that affect resistance to change: “routine seeking, emotional reaction to imposed change, short-term focus, and cognitive rigidity” (2003). Additionally, and possibly related to some of these personality factors, is that “perceptions have a significant and profound role and influence in any change process, particularly when it comes to creating resistance to change” Mdletye, et.al. (2014).
In addition to these perception, personality, and attitude factors, there is a more biological explanation. Neuroscience purports that the brain is wired to resist change. Humans are wired to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. Change is uncomfortable. As a result, the brain naturally resists change. Beyond this, the brain is wired to conserve energy. Change, because of the need to focus more vigilantly and not simply function on “auto-pilot,” requires more energy. As a result, change is resisted.
As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Staying the same is a comfortable choice, even when change is necessary. As a result people can become comfortable in their misery. The situation may even seem hopeless. But it isn’t.
Understanding why one resists change can alter the approach to making positive changes. Although the brain’s default is to conserve energy and resist change, one can take control of his or her thoughts and challenge the reasoning the brain is providing for not changing. For example, if one wants to exercise more, but finds excuses every day, one can recognize these excuses are the brain’s default and not give them any credence. One can then replace these thoughts with healthier, more accurate, and rational thoughts that encourage the change.
Similarly, initial perceptions can be challenged and changed. Many have an initial negative reaction to the idea of change. This is often one’s default. Teaching oneself to focus on the positives of change can alter the initially negative perception. There are always positives present, but they are not always easy to see. As the brain has default functioning that works against an individual, there are biases that can work for the positive. For example, cognitive dissonance (the idea one cannot hold two conflicting beliefs) can work for the positive. When forced to change the mind will look for reasons this is the best course if the change can be accepted and applied.
Acceptance is another popular topic in psychology. When one can learn to accept circumstances, as I’ve written many times (What Recovering Alcoholics can Teach Us About Happiness, Let Go, Be Happy, Overcoming Unnecessary Suffering, Acceptance: It Isn’t What You Think) one will be happier, specifically when nothing can be done about the situation. Acceptance of change can contribute to a more positive perception, as well as embracing forced change.
Recent studies have indicated there are ways to improve willpower, which can be of crucial importance to beginning and sustaining change. There are several studies that demonstrate self-control can be enhanced through thinking exercises. These include meditation or prayer, focusing on closely held personal values, and envisioning someone like you persevering (Huston, 2015). Additionally, one can use self-talk to redefine who she is. When people make a healthier choice part of their perceived self, they are more successful in the behavioral change (Eyal, 2015). For example, if you want to quit smoking, you identify as someone who doesn’t smoke. A final suggestion is that one can reassure oneself of his ability to control himself. Those who believe they have better than average self-control perform with more self-control than those who do not (Weissman, 2015).
In conclusion, we naturally resist change. It seems to be in our biology and our nature. Just understanding this can lead to changes in perception and the ability to challenge the forces that keep one stuck. It takes effort. It takes awareness. But change can be embraced.
Copyright William Berry, 2016
Eyal, N; 2015; None for me, thanks; Psychology Today; October, 2015; p.22.
Huston, M; 2015; The Edge of Restraint; Psychology Today, October 2015; p.11
Mdletye, M.A; Coetzee, J; Ukpere, W.I; 2014; The Reality of Resistance to Change Behaviour at the Department of Correctional Services of South Africa; Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, MCSER Publishing, Rome-Italy, Vol 5 No 3; March 2014
Oreg, S; 2003; Resistance to Change: Developing an Individual Differences Measure; Journal of Applied Psychology, 2003, Vol. 88, No. 4, pg 690.
Shaw; G.G. quote retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/change?page=1 on October 22nd, 2016.
Starecheski, L; 2014; Why Saying is Believing: The Science of Self Talk; Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/10/07/353292408/why-saying... on 2/2/16.
Tolstoy, L. quote retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/change?page=1 on October 22nd, 2016.
Weissman, E; 2015; The power is yours; Psychology Today; October, 2015; p.18.