Why We Accidentally Prevent People From Changing

New research reveals a double standard that secretly sabotages change attempts.

Posted Mar 22, 2017

 Koldunov/Shutterstock
Source: Koldunov/Shutterstock

When someone around you tries to make a change — your boss tries to be more empathetic, your spouse tries to communicate more clearly, or your kids try to be more patient — how much evidence do you need to see to conclude that they have changed? Or, on the flip side, how many slip-ups will you tolerate before concluding that these changes are hopeless?  

These are the questions University of Chicago researchers Ed O'Brien and Nadav Klein asked in a fascinating new series of studies covering everything from changes in work performance and academic ability to changes in physical health, behavior habits, and public policies.

What they discovered is a disturbing double standard: It turns out that when we evaluate change — in ourselves and in the people around us — we fail to notice signs of improvement, but we exaggerate signs of decline

It works like this: When your temperamental co-worker Victor goes two weeks without an angry outburst, we don't think, Hey, Victor is really making progress. Instead, we think Oh man, his next eruption is gonna be epic. Then, after weeks of good behavior, when Victor succumbs to even a small fit of anger, we conclude that it was "only a matter of time" before he showed "his true colors" again. 

It's not hard to see how this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you were Victor, how long would you bother to stick with your attempts to change, if you knew that everyone around you ignored your three steps forward, but crucified you for a single step back?  

But what if we could flip the script?  

That's what O'Brien and Klein did in one of their 10 studies. They simply mentioned to participants how most people do, in fact, successfully improve with a little bit of effort. In this study alone, the results were the exact opposite: People were quicker to spot improvements, rather than declines.  

Think about it: The researchers totally reversed a nearly universal double standard simply by reminding participants that change for the better was a more likely outcome than change for the worse.

Compare that to how often we start change discussions with the unhelpful assumption that "Change is hard."

What would happen if we stopped talking about how change is a rare, herculean accomplishment and started talking more about the fact that each of us has been successfully adapting our behaviors and learning new skills to fit new situations since the day we were born? Would change suddenly feel less daunting? Would we be more tolerant of our colleagues, more supportive of our kids, and, above all, more patient with ourselves?

At the very least, we would start paying more attention to the progress people are making, rather than the perfection they (and we) have yet to attain. 

Nick Tasler is an author, thinker, and organizational psychologist. His new book is Ricochet: What to Do When Change Happens to You. Follow him @NickTasler

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