Monday, July 4, 2016

Change: Swings and Roundabouts You Cannot See

Finding it hard to change your behaviour, get rid of a habit or get someone on your team to change their behaviour? Finding change to be akin to teaching a pig to sing?  it annoys the hell out of the pig and is really, really hard work.

A lot of learning in adults really involves behaviour change. This is particularly true if we are talking about eh so called ‘soft skills’ such as getting on with people, teamwork, leadership, negotiation and so on. Most of what I do in workshops is more about helping people shift from one set of ingrained habits to another, hopefully more useful set. That’s one of the reasons that didactic teaching is ineffective for adults: telling someone they need to change and presenting information to support it just doesn’t work. It is much more complex than that. As I’ve written about fairly extensively, there is a world of difference between obtaining skills and knowledge (competencies) and actual learning: the latter involves real change.

There are several human factors that get in the way of change and they all operate at an unconscious level:
  • we are hard wired to be habitual because it conserves energy;
  • change causes a stress response in the body and so we avoid it;
  • changing attitudes and beliefs requires behaviour change first (not the other way around as  most people think-happy to discuss this if needs be);
  • emotion usually plays a big part in habits; and
  • changing a habit takes concerted effort for around 3 months (not 21 days as some snake oil salespeople tell you).

 There are exceptions to this, such as change associated with intense emotional experience.

Efforts to change behaviour need to address these factors and psychologists pay them a lot of attention when designing change.

There is one other factor that plays a role in making change difficult that is of great interest to me, particularly when tyring to help someone change. This has to do with rewards or ‘payoffs’. This factor is also unconscious most of the time.

I used to wonder why to was that people who were in tremendous emotional pain would still not change their behaviour. They’d go back to their abusive partner, keep working at a place that was killing them emotionally, not stop smoking or lose weight after a heart attack, or fail to use strategies that would make a difference to their behaviour and how they felt. As well as the other factors mentioned above I discovered, mostly by reading Milton Erickson’s work, that payoffs are a critical factor.

There are some payoffs that are really subtle. One example is dieting. Let’s say we do some exercise as part of our program and burn up a few calories. Our body will then trick us and make us feel hungry and drive our thoughts towards food. Unless we have great control over our impulses we automatically eat more food and of the wrong kind. This is based on a primitive but still working survival instinct in which we preserve fat for times when food is not available. We are driven to eat when it is available and when we have lost some of our current weight. We are hard wired to maintain our current body weight, no matter how big we might be. So, dieting is really, really hard work and humans are not that good at ignoring unconscious impulse: particularly if the habit is addictive (addicted people release dopamine in the brain that makes us feel good, feel rewarded).

Less subtle but still difficult to see payoffs can be:
  • the bad feeling I get when I give up smoking/drinking/using drugs is worse than the prospect of dying young or getting sick (seen as a remote prospect);
  • the toxic relationship that I am in is better than the fear of being alone;
  • if I change my behaviour that means he/she wins and I’d rather lose my job than be proven  wrong;
  • being angry or negative towards people keeps them at bay/gives me power and is less painful than being close to people/being less powerful;
  •  the belief that this thing that is happening to me is what I deserve (based on our self image);
  • the loss of control I feel when I relax (sleep/meditate/don’t do anything) is worse than the intense anxiety I live with; for example.
Payoffs are idiosyncratic to the person, are many and varied and not easy to understand. I still shake my head at some people’s behaviour even though I know that there is some purpose behind it: that it is not just random.

I remember a psychiatrist who, in 1970, was discharging a woman, Mrs Jones, from a psychiatric hospital. She became very fearful and said to the psychiatrist that she couldn’t possibly go home because she was so depressed. The psychiatrist responded by telling her that she wouldn’t be happy unless she was depressed.

So, the payoff to change has to be greater than the payoff not to change. That is why I am such a fan of clearly stated consequences. Having said that it’s not easy: change is a lot more complex than we think and needs to be well thought through and well managed.

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