Why Change Is Hard Even When We Know It’s Needed

We often fail to do something about our behavior.

Posted Jan 06, 2021

People commonly show up at the psychologist’s office not because they have a mental illness, but because they find it difficult to either stop doing something they know is counterproductive or start doing something they know would be productive. Why are such changes so difficult?

One general reason has to do with the mismatch between our ancestral and current environment. For example, we have evolved to overeat when food is around and lower our metabolism when it’s not. These tendencies served our ancestors well in an environment where food supply was scarce and famine was an ever present threat. Now that food supply is abundant, the old tendencies persist. We overeat when food is around, which is always, so we gain weight. When we reduce intake so as to lose it, our ancient system kicks into panic 'famine' mode, conserving energy. This is one reason diets don’t work.

Relatedly, our brain has evolved to favor short-term over long-term calculations, immediate over delayed gratifications, and avoiding losses over acquiring gains. Again, these tendencies were adaptive when life was short and precarious and gratifications scant. But our life expectancy has extended dramatically over the last century. Immediate existential perils have diminished greatly, while immediate temptations have become increasingly varied, available, and abundant. Thus, we gorge on the abundant present with little regard for the faraway future. Alas, when you actually have a future—as we now do—disregarding it is consequential. Short-term pleasures morph into long-term pain, and short-term solutions become long-term problems. Credit card bills come due, eventually.

geralt for Pixabay
Source: geralt for Pixabay

The second reason has to do with the nature of two related concepts: habit and skill. Roughly sketched, our brain includes two central processing systems: controlled or automatic (or reflective and reflexive).

Controlled processes are slow, conscious, effortful, and easily disrupted. We use them to discover and learn new skills. Well-practiced skills become habits, and are placed under the jurisdiction of automatic processes, which are fast, unconscious, effortless, and resistant to disruption.

This automation confers advantages—automatic habits no longer require much energy and attentional resources (both of which are limited) to sustain them. They don’t break, even under pressure, and their seamless sturdiness facilitates system stability and efficiency.

But every adaptation comes at a price. First, the habit development process is content neutral, and bad habits are as easy to develop, and as hard to break, as good ones. Second, habits tend to serve us well in a relatively stable environment. But if environmental change is rapid and extreme—as it is in our time—old habits can become maladaptive and old skills a hindrance. Just watch grandpa try to master the new iPhone.

The third reason has to do with the nature of the mind. A useful way to visualize this is by thinking about the human mind as a society. Like society, the mind is one thing and also many things. Like society, a mind can be more or less powerful, functional, or fractured. Like society, the mind involves various oft-conflicting interests and voices competing for dominance, resources, and sway.

To wit, the reasons we are failing to act on climate change as a culture are similar to the reasons we fail to save for retirement as individuals: The problem appears far in the future; multiple other concerns pull on our current attention and resources; change will require abandoning familiar practices and ingrained habits, which is scary, and will beget short-term losses. Those interests—internal and societal—that stand to lose are busy stalling change.

The fourth reason has to do with the social environment. We are social creatures. We survive and thrive only in the context of coherent, functional groups. Our selves are to a large extent social constructions, embedded in a social context, tethered to complex social networks, and responsive to social pressures and affordances. Social circumstances and demands often hamstring our behavioral choices, override our individual will, or overwhelm our skills.

Given these considerations, what might we do when we feel stuck in a behavioral pattern we know is bad and unable to shift into another we know is better?

First, it is useful to accept that struggling with change is normal, as our evolutionary misalignment, the tenaciousness of habits, and the pull of social influences often stand in the way. 

Second, remembering that the mind, like society, is often conflicted, allows us to reflect properly on our struggle with change. When you think, “I want to change,” a truer self-statement would be, "A part of me wants to change.” That part may be facing potent internal opposition. If your behavior continues to cause you pain, perhaps pain is what a part of you believes you deserve. 

Behaviors rarely continue for long if they produce absolutely no value. Sometimes we fail to recognize the value of a seemingly damaging behavior. The misbehaving, oft-punished child persists because he receives parental attention—a valued resource. Sometimes the by-product of certain actions becomes the product over time. Raw physical strength and aggression—biological male attributes—were valuable survival resources early in our evolution. The historical marginalization of women was largely a by-product of that. At present, these attributes are no longer essential for survival. When women are marginalized today, that marginalization is the product.

Third, when we find ourselves doing something that consistently makes us feel bad, it’s useful to explore whether we’re doing so in order to avoid what we fear will be a worse outcome. We often elect to stay with “bad” in order to avoid “worse.” I’ll suffer a toothache in order to avoid the dentist’s drill. A gay person may suffer in the closet to avoid the consequences of coming out.

Even behaviors that do not look like avoidance will often reveal themselves to be just that. A macho façade may serve to avoid facing identity insecurities. Worrying about a problem often constitutes avoidance of problem-solving action. Therapy clients (and therapists) sometimes keep silent to avoid talking, or keep talking to avoid silence.

Fourth, if you find yourself repeatedly doing something unhelpful or inefficient, it may be due to a simple lack of skill. We can only do what we know how to do. To wit: Many people have bad sex not due to relationship problems, stress, trauma, or psychosexual dysfunction but rather because they don’t have good sex skills. Improving competence through practice and education is often the best way to affect your life course.

Finally, in seeking change, we are always wise to consider our environment, because our behavior is strongly under the control of our circumstances. In fact, we celebrate people who’ve transcended their circumstances—poor people who became wealthy and wealthy people who've retained their humility—precisely because they are exceptions to this rule.

Different circumstances may elicit and inhibit different behaviors. You’re going to tread carefully at the edge of a cliff; you hush your voice at a funeral and raise it at the ballgame. To change behavior, it is often necessary to change our environment.

Writ large, this is analogous to the process of immigration. For people who are struggling in a certain country for various reasons—religious persecution; economic instability; lack of opportunity; oppression, discrimination, etc.—a move to a new country where they can find security, opportunity, and acceptance may be the optimal solution. Likewise individually, sometimes the best way to get moving is to move.