Everyone has something they want to change. Salespeople want to change their customers’ minds and marketers want to change purchase decisions. Employees want to change their bosses’ perspective and leaders want to change organizations. Parents want to change their children’s behavior. Start-ups want to change industries. Nonprofits want to change the world. But change is hard.
Isaac Newton famously noted that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest. Just like moons and comets, people and organizations are guided by conservation of momentum. Inertia.
Chemical reactions usually require a certain amount of energy. Special substances speed up the process. But rather than upping the heat or adding more pressure, they provide an alternate route, reducing the amount of energy required for reactions to occur. Special substances take a different approach. Rather than pushing, they lower the barriers to change. And these substances are called catalysts.
We are so focused on our desired outcome that we’re consumed with how we can push people in that direction.
Sometimes change doesn’t require more horsepower. Sometimes we just need to unlock the parking brake.
- Principle 1: Reactance. When pushed, people push back. To lower this barrier, catalysts encourage people to persuade themselves.
- Principle 2: Endowment. As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. People are wedded to what they’re already doing. To ease endowment, or people’s attachment to the status quo, catalysts highlight how inaction isn’t as costless as it seems.
- Principle 3: Distance. Another barrier is distance. If new information is within people’s zone of acceptance, they’re willing to listen. But if it is too far away, in the region of rejection, everything flips.
- Principle 4: Uncertainty Change often involves uncertainty. To overcome this barrier, catalysts make things easier to try.
- Principle 5: Corroborating Evidence Sometimes one person, no matter how knowledgeable or assured, is not enough. Some things just need more proof. To overcome this barrier, catalysts find reinforcement. Corroborating evidence.
Reactance, Endowment, Distance, Uncertainty, and Corroborating Evidence can be called the five horsemen of inertia.
Catalysts reduce Reactance, ease Endowment, shrink Distance, alleviate Uncertainty, and find Corroborating Evidence. Taken together, that forms an acronym, REDUCE. Which is exactly what great catalysts do. They REDUCE roadblocks.
Note that not every situation involves all five roadblocks.
Telling people not to do something has the opposite effect: it makes them more likely to do it.
People have a need for freedom and autonomy. To feel that their lives and actions are within their personal control.
When others threaten or restrict that freedom, people get upset. When told they can’t or shouldn’t do something, it interferes with their autonomy.
When people’s ability to make their own choices is taken away or even threatened, they react against the potential loss of control.
Doing the forbidden thing becomes an easy way to reassert their sense of being in the driver’s seat.
And reactance happens even when asking people to do something rather than telling them not to.
In the absence of persuasion, people think they are doing what they want.
To avoid reactance and the persuasion radar, then, catalysts allow for agency. They stop trying to persuade and instead get people to persuade themselves.
To reduce reactance, catalysts allow for agency — not by telling people what to do or by being completely hands-off, but by finding the middle ground. By guiding their path. Four key ways to do that are:
- Provide a menu,
- ask, don’t tell,
- highlight a gap, and
- start with understanding.
One way to allow for agency is to let people pick the path.
It’s providing a menu: a limited set of options from which people can choose.
Advertising agencies do something similar when presenting work to clients. Smart agencies share multiple directions — not ten or fifteen but two or three — and let the client pick which one they like the best.
Give people multiple options, and suddenly things shift. Rather than thinking about what is wrong with whatever was suggested, they think about which one is better.
Another way to allow for agency is to ask questions rather than make statements. Questions do a couple things. First, like providing a menu, questions shift the listener’s role. Rather than counterarguing or thinking about all the reasons they disagree with a statement, listeners are occupied with a different task: figuring out an answer to the question. Second, and more importantly, questions increase buy-in. Because while people may not want to follow someone else’s lead, they’re much more likely to follow their own. The answer to the question isn’t just any answer; it’s their answer. Questions encourage listeners to commit to the conclusion. To behave consistently with whatever answer, they gave.
Giving people a menu, or asking rather than telling, avoids usurping their sense of control. But another route to self-persuasion is to highlight a gap — a disconnect between someone’s thoughts and actions or a disparity between what they might recommend for others versus do themselves.
This approach works even when the dissonance isn’t as obvious.
The final way catalysts allow for autonomy goes back, as surprising as it may seem, to the approach used by hostage negotiators like Greg Vecchi. Over the last few decades, negotiators have relied on a simple stairway model. Whether trying to convince an international terrorist to let hostages go or to change someone’s mind about committing suicide, a basic set of steps consistently works.
Before people will change, they have to be willing to listen. They have to trust the person they’re communicating with. And until that happens, no amount of persuasion is going to work.
So-called tactical empathy helps negotiators understand what the underlying issue really is: why a suspect is upset or what they need.
Only then, after he’s built understanding and established trust, does Greg try to create change.
When people feel understood and cared about, trust develops.
Change is hard, because people tend to overvalue what they have: what they already own or are already doing.
It turns out that once we have something, once we’re endowed with it, we start to become attached to it. And consequently, we value it more. This so-called endowment effect happens all the time.
In fact, the longer people do or own something, the more they value it.
Research suggests that the potential gains of doing something have to be 2.6 times larger than the potential losses to get people to take action.
And while the advantages of new things are often salient, potential change agents often ignore the disadvantages or costs.
These different aspects can all be described as switching costs. The financial, psychological, or procedural (e.g., time and effort) impediments to switching products and services, but also suppliers, doctors, payment systems, routes to work, or basically anything.
How do we ease endowment? Two key ways are to: surface the cost of inaction and burn the ships.
Things that aren’t painful enough don’t generate such significant responses, which means they never end up getting addressed.
Terrible things get replaced, but mediocre things stick around. Horrible performance generates action, but average performance generates complacency.
Change is costly. New products cost money and new services take time to learn how to use. New initiatives take effort to develop and new ideas take time to get accustomed to. And these costs are mostly up-front.
The benefits of change, however, tend to take longer to happen.
Not surprisingly, this cost-benefit timing gap stymies action. People are impatient. They want the good stuff faster and the bad stuff later. So, if changing means costs now and benefits later, they do nothing.
To change minds and ease endowment, catalysts surface the cost of inaction. They make it easier for people to see the difference between what they are doing now and what they could be doing.
Seeing how much time or money is being lost is more motivating than seeing how much could have been gained.
Surfacing the costs of inaction encourages the realization that doing nothing isn’t costless. But when endowment is really strong, sometimes change requires going one step further. And those situations may warrant burning the ships.
Inaction is easy. It requires little effort to stick with the same beliefs, little time to stick with the same policies and approaches, and little money to stick with products and services that are already being used. Not surprisingly, then, when the choice is action or inaction, inaction often wins. Inertia prevails. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. So sometimes inaction needs to be taken off the table. Or at least no longer subsidized.
Rather than thinking about whether a given new thing is better than the old one, by helping to take inaction off the table, burning the ships encourages people to set aside the old and instead think about which new thing is worth pursuing.
Catalyzing change isn’t just about making people more comfortable with new things; it’s about helping them let go of old ones. Easing endowment.
Even new products and services can be talked about this way. It’s the same thing you’ve always known and loved, just updated for today’s digital age. It’s not a change; it’s a refresh.
Reactance and endowment are two important barriers that prevent change. But to understand why information often fails to shift people’s position, we have to appreciate the importance of distance.
When trying to change minds, we hope that evidence will work. That giving people facts, figures, and other information will encourage them to move in our direction. The intuition is simple. Data should lead people to update their thinking. They should consider the evidence provided and shift their opinions accordingly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
Rather than changing false beliefs, exposure to the truth often increased misperceptions. Giving people correct information made them more likely to believe the exact opposite. So, when does information work and when does it backfire?
Sometimes less is better than more.
When trying to change minds, we often want big change right away.
But just as often this blows up in our faces. Rather than shifting perspectives, people dig in their heels. Rather than changing, they become even more convinced they’re right. As we discussed, reactance is one reason. When people feel like someone is trying to convince them, their guard goes up. They counterargue against the persuasion. And the region of rejection explains why. People have a range, or zone around their beliefs that they are willing to consider.
No wonder one person’s truth is another’s “fake news.” Whether information seems true or false depends on one’s position on the field. Rather than uniting opposing sides, exposure to evidence sometimes just widens the gap.
This tendency to look for and process information in a way that confirms one’s existing viewpoint has been called the confirmation bias. These biases make changing minds all the more difficult. Not only do people have to be willing to change, they have to be willing to listen to information that might open them up to that possibility. When ideas or information comes in, people compare it to their existing view. They consider and weigh it to understand how it fits with existing beliefs. If it falls within the zone of acceptance, it gets the seal of approval. It’s marked as trustworthy, safe, and dependable. And it shifts people in that direction. But if the ideas or information falls in the region of rejection, it faces deeper scrutiny. It’s seen as unreliable, anecdotal, and erroneous, or, even worse, ignored completely. And shifts attitudes in the opposite direction.
Three ways to mitigate distance are to: find the movable middle, ask for less, and switch the field to find an unsticking point.
In politics, smart campaigns don’t try to change every mind; they focus on swing voters who are open to facts and arguments. Undecideds, or pockets of people who, given the candidate, circumstance, or issue, are receptive to being swayed. People who have a larger zone of acceptance or whose zone overlaps more with the candidate’s positions.
When dealing with issues that people feel strongly about, start by finding the movable middle. Individuals who, by virtue of their existing positions, are more likely to shift because they’re not so far away to begin with.
In a business context, consumers who’ve complained about a competitor on social media
Rather than going after anyone, catalysts start by finding the people who see their offering as a painkiller.
Agreeing to a small, related ask moved people in the right direction. Which meant that the final ask, which once would have been too far away, was now within the zone of acceptance. Because when people move their position on the field, their zones and regions move with them. Consequently, rather than being squarely in the region of rejection, the final ask is now in more people’s zone of acceptance. Which makes them more likely to help.
Asking for less is about committing to that process.
Rather than just asking for less, then, it’s really about chunking the change. Breaking big asks into smaller, more manageable chunks.
To catalyze change, then, we need to start by finding the movable middle. People for whom the change is not as large, and who can be used to help convince others. When trying to change those who are further away, we need to start by asking for less, as Dr. Priest did. Take big change and break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks or stepping-stones. Ask for less before asking for more. And finally, like Dave Fleischer’s deep canvassers, we need to find an unsticking point. Start with a place of agreement and pivot from there to switch the field. Connecting to these parallel directions should move them enough to see the initial topic differently. And maybe even change a little.
Beyond distance, though, there’s another roadblock we have to wrestle with. And that is uncertainty.
If you’re like most people, you probably said you would pick the sure thing.
Why? Because people are risk averse. They like knowing what they are getting, and as long as what they are getting is positive, they prefer sure things to risky ones. Even if the risky choice is better, on average.
Change almost always involves some degree of uncertainty. And people dislike uncertainty. Not just a little, like bad weather or spoiled milk or a host of other things they find mildly annoying. No, people really dislike uncertainty. So much so that it has a real, tangible cost.
Uncertainty is even worse than certain negative outcomes. Consequently, the more change involves uncertainty, the less interested people are in changing.
So how can we get people to un-pause?
It turns out that the answer to this question comes from what might seem like a totally unrelated domain: hybrid corn. Everett Rogers was born on a family farm in rural Iowa in the early 1930s. Surveying more than 250 farmers in two Iowa communities, they found that even although hybrid corn was technically “better”. It took thirteen years until everyone finally adopted it. And even when farmers started using the new seed, it took them almost a decade to use it for their entire crop.
Rogers saw similarities across these various areas and began to formulate a general “diffusion” model. A theory about not just agricultural innovations and farmers but what would make any new invention, technology, or idea diffuse through any population. When he presented this model to his dissertation committee, though, they were skeptical. How could the same reasons drive success across different innovations, people, places, and cultures? The very notion seemed ridiculous. Decades later, Rogers’s book Diffusion of Innovations is a modern classic. In it, Rogers argues that up to 87 percent of the variance in how quickly things are adopted can be explained by just five attributes. And of the key factors Rogers identified, the most important, the one that explained the most variance in the studies he reviewed, was a concept he called “trialability.” Simply put, trialability is how easy it is to try something.
The question, then, is how to reduce uncertainty by lowering the barrier to trial. Four key ways to do that are to:
- harness freemium,
- reduce up-front costs,
- drive discovery,
- and make it reversible.
Freemium gives users the time and space to explore what the service has to offer. Sure, some people might upload one file and that’s the end of it, but if the service is useful, people will come back a second time and a third. And in so doing, they’ll realize the value the service provides.
Dropbox isn’t alone. Hundreds of companies have used freemium to drive success.
By allowing consumers to experience things like they would in a physical store, without having to pay for the opportunity, free shipping overcame the uncertainty tax and changed how people shop forever.
Test drives, whether at the car dealership or at the Apple store with a new tech gadget, give people a sense of what something is like before they have to commit.
Drive Discovery. Freemium and reducing up-front costs both work if someone is interested in trying something out. But what if people don’t even know you exist? Or they know you exist but don’t think they’d like what you have to offer?
Make It Reversible. The last way to reduce uncertainty is to make things reversible.
Returns are a big issue for retailers. Consumers return more than a quarter of a trillion dollars in merchandise annually, and less than half of those goods can be resold at full price.
Just like reducing up-front costs, shrinking back-end friction encourages action. Like free shipping and free trials, lenient return policies help change minds because they reduce people’s hesitation about trying something new.
For all the ways in which lowering the barrier to trial allows catalysts to overcome uncertainty, one more aspect is worth mentioning. The mug study we talked about in the Endowment chapter showed that sellers value things more than buyers. That once people have something, they become attached to it and are loath to give it up. Along these lines, trial takes advantage of the endowment effect by shifting peoples’ mind-set from acquisition to retention.
Indeed, giving people more time to return things can actually make returns less likely.
Neophobia is the fear or a dislike of anything new. While most people don’t have the clinical version of neophobia, we’re all neophobic to some degree. Compared to old things we’re already doing; we tend to dislike or undervalue new ones. And part of the reason is uncertainty.
Let people experience something in small doses, and if they like it, they’ll come back for more.
This response is something people often get from their bosses. No, thanks. Maybe later. That’s great for a different organization, but it won’t work here.
So far, we’ve discussed how to reduce reactance, ease endowment, shrink distance, and alleviate uncertainty. Next, we examine the last barrier catalysts frequently face. And that is situations where there is not enough evidence.
The distinction behavioral scientists make between weak and strong attitudes.
Opinions toward these nonsense words are examples of what are called weak attitudes. Preferences or opinions that people don’t find very important, that haven’t received much thought, or that are relatively easy to change.
How you feel about your favorite brand of beer. Or abortion. These are examples of strong attitudes. High-involvement issues, topics, or preferences that you’ve thought a lot about or hold with great moral conviction. Things you feel aren’t just a matter of opinion but have a right or wrong answer. Not surprisingly, strong attitudes are much more resistant to change. For strong attitudes, there is a higher threshold for changing minds. More is needed. More information, more texture, or more certainty. More proof before people will switch.
When faced with a boulder, the most common response is to turn up the juice. To try harder to convince people that a certain course of action is the right way to go.
When someone endorses or recommends something, there’s always a translation problem. When someone hears a recommendation, they try to make sense of it. To sort out what that recommendation means. Does it say something about the thing being recommended, or does it just say something about the recommender themselves? So whenever people get a recommendation or see someone else doing or liking something, they try to figure out — to translate — what it means for them.
This translation problem doesn’t happen for everything. But when it comes to changing minds, translation comes into play. Not everyone likes or believes the same thing.
Things are subjective rather than objective. So how do we solve the translation problem?
Multiple sources saying or doing the same thing solves the translation problem. If just one source suggests or does something, it’s hard to translate. Hard to know if their opinion is diagnostic. Hard to know what their reaction means for your own.
As the old adage goes, “If one person says you have a tail, you laugh and think they’re crazy. But if three people say it, you turn around to look.” More sources doing or saying the same thing can provide more proof. But who those sources are and when they share their perspectives plays an important role.
In particular, when finding corroborating evidence, it’s important to consider who, when, and how:
- who else to involve (or which sources are most impactful),
- when to space corroborating evidence over time, and
- how to best deploy scarce resources when trying to change minds on a larger scale.
A great deal of research finds that similarity matters.
Because the more similar a source is, the more diagnostic their experiences, preferences, and opinions are as a source of information. In other words, the translation problem is less of a problem when there’s less need for translation.
Similarity matters for changing minds, as we know, but it turns out diversity is also important.
Because it’s not just about how many others are doing something; it’s about whether those others provide additional information. The more independent the sources are, the more corroborating evidence they provide.
Concentration increases impact. Concentration is helpful when trying to change one person’s mind, but it also has implications for larger-scale change.
Take a new home goods start-up that’s trying to gain traction. Resources, whether time, money, or personnel, are often limited, so there’s a tradeoff between breadth and depth. Spread resources out and run ads in ten different markets, going after a small number of potential customers in each? Or concentrate resources and go after a larger number of potential customers in one market, using that beachhead to grow to nearby markets?
These two approaches can be described as sprinkler and fire hose strategies. Sprinklers spread water out. They sprinkle a little here and a little there, providing broad coverage relatively quickly. That coverage isn’t deep in any one place, but many places get attention. All the grass within range gets a little wet. Fire hoses are more concentrated. Rather than spreading water out, they saturate one area. Consequently, hitting multiple areas happens sequentially rather than simultaneously. Drenching one area first and only then moving on to another. Conventional wisdom says that the sprinkler strategy is better. It raises broader awareness, diversifies risk, and increases the chance of a first-mover advantage.
But is conventional wisdom, right? Is a sprinkler strategy always more effective? It depends. And what it depends on is whether the thing you’re trying to change is a weak attitude or a strong one. A pebble or a boulder.
For weaker attitudes, pebbles — or cases where only a little proof is needed to generate change — the sprinkler strategy works best. Consequently, when more corroborating evidence is needed, using a fire hose is more effective.
If a little proof is enough to drive action, then a sprinkler strategy is ideal. Go after each group simultaneously without much depth. But when corroborating evidence is needed, concentrating resources becomes more important.
When trying to change minds, it’s important to be able to judge the difference between pebbles and boulders. Between attitudes and opinions, products and services, behaviors, ideas, and initiatives that need only a little proof versus ones that need a lot more.
Behavioral scientist Kurt Lewin once noted, “If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.” But the reverse is also true. To truly change something, you need to understand it.
First, anyone’s mind can be changed. That’s not to say it’s easy to catalyze change, or that everyone’s mind can be changed overnight. Take a look at big changes, and they’re rarely that abrupt. Particularly with bigger shifts, change takes weeks, months, or even years to occur. But by understanding why people change, and why they don’t, catalysts make change more likely.
Second, when it comes to change, there’s a better way. Not by pushing harder, or adding more energy, but by removing barriers to change. Reducing roadblocks. Being a catalyst. Whether it’s about shifting minds, changing behavior, or inciting action, catalysts REDUCE roadblocks. Whether you’re trying to convince a client, change an organization, or disrupt the way an entire industry does business, think about what roadblocks are preventing change and how you can reduce them.
But the last point is the most important one. And that is that anyone can be a catalyst.
Everyone has something they want to change. By being a catalyst, and working to REDUCE roadblocks, you, too, can change anyone’s mind.
Why questions (“Why didn’t you take out the trash?”), for example, can make people defensive or feel like they are being interrogated.
Pauses harness the power of silence. Pauses also help focus attention. Pausing just before or after saying something important breeds anticipation and encourages listeners to focus on what the communicator is saying. President Obama was famous for this. His campaign slogan “Yes, we can” was often delivered with a pause in between, as in “Yes … we can.” In his 2008 election night speech, his most stirring sentence contained ten of these pauses: “If there is anyone out there … who still doubts … that America is a place … where all things are possible, … who still wonders … if the dream of our Founders … is alive in our time, … who still questions … the power of our democracy, … tonight … is your answer.” Strategically pausing helps make points and hold attention.
Emotional labeling helps identify the issues and feelings that are driving someone’s behavior. Statements like “You sound angry” or “You seem frustrated” help show that you’re listening and trying to understand. Even if the emotion is misidentified, the response provides background that helps identify the root issue.
Force Field Analysis
One way to spot barriers is to think about the past and present rather than the future. As we’ve discussed, instead of asking what would encourage change, ask why things haven’t changed already. Why hasn’t the desired shift already occurred. What’s preventing it? What existing factors have prevented it from happening by now?