Change Is Hard, But Is It Easier During the Pandemic?

Author: Michelle Russell       


Author Jonah Berger believes that the pandemic has forced people to change their daily habits, which makes them more open to other new ideas.

Jonah Berger, Ph.D., a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, is the author of the recent book The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. While the book was written before COVID-19, his insights about why it’s difficult to get people to change — to convince them of something even when it’s good for them and others, like wearing a mask, perhaps? — are especially relevant today.

So after Harvard Business Review interviewed him before the pandemic for a podcast about his new book, Senior Editor Alison Beard reconnected with him recently to see how the current uncertain environment has brought his work in the psychology of change management into sharp relief.

In the part of the podcast recorded pre-pandemic, Berger cited five common barriers to getting people to change. The first is reactance, which he describes as a kneejerk reaction most of us have to being told to do something. An example he offers is during a business meeting when people are asked to support a certain initiative, even if they were already inclined to support it. Asking them, he said, “impinges on [their] freedom and autonomy. Right? They feel like now the reason they’re supporting it isn’t because they wanted to. It was because you told them to….”

One way to solve this problem, Berger said, is to provide a menu of options — to give people a choice rather than a directive.

The next hurdle, Berger said, “is endowment, which is, we tend to be attached to things we’re doing already. Then there’s distance, too far, if we ask for something that’s too big an ask, people ignore it. And collaborating evidence, which is all about providing more proof.”

The fifth issue Berger talks about is uncertainty. Here’s what he said before the COVID-19 crisis ripped through our lives: “I think another big issue is uncertainty. And any time there’s a change, any time there’s something new, any time we’re asking people to do something different, there’s a risk associated with [it]. Old things feel safe, even if they’re not perfect, have problems associated with them. We know what those problems are. Right? Whereas new things, we don’t even know what those problems are. And so, often people feel quite uncertain.”

Here’s what Berger said more recently, included at the end of the podcast:

“You know I think what’s neat about this moment is while there is a lot going on and it’s certainly challenging, it’s also a time of immense opportunity. People don’t like change. They don’t want to have to change, they would prefer to never have to change.

“Now people have been forced to change. They’ve been forced to shop more online, they’ve been forced to work from home. They’ve been forced to go running rather than go to the gym. Whatever it might be. And so because they’ve been forced to change, they’re more open to new ideas than they’d usually be.

“I think a good analogy is sort of like a snowglobe. When it sits on your office or on a table at home, the snow is settled and nothing’s really changing. You shake it up, and you’ve got a minute or so where everything’s up in the air and things are moving around and you have an opportunity to move them in one direction or another.”

Berger said that now that we have been forced to try new things, we may have actually learned that it’s pretty good, and afterwards we may stick with it.

Bottom line, your audience may be more open to new ways of building your community and hosting events, and your boss may be more open to your ideas and willing to take more risks. And about the mask-wearing thing, here’s what Berger had to say:

“We’ve seen a lot of push messaging from wear your mask and stay home and don’t do this and do that and a lot of telling people what to do, which, as we talked about, doesn’t really work… . I think nothing has shown the challenges of reactance more than recent events. When you push people, they push back.

“Even if someone might have been willing to wear a mask, or stay at home, or do something else — because you told them to now, they’re less interested in doing it. And so, you know what I’ve seen has been more effective is [doing] things like highlighting a gap between attitudes and actions.

“I was talking to a colleague who was worried about all their folks at the office [who] were slowly trickling back in some way shape or form and people weren’t wearing masks enough. And rather than telling them, ‘Hey, why don’t you wear a mask at the office?’ why don’t you say, ‘Hey, if you brought your parent or grandparent to the office, if you brought your child to the office, would you want everyone to be wearing masks? Probably. Ok then, why aren’t you?’

“And so again not telling them what to do, not pushing them in one direction, but really identifying the barriers to change and mitigating them.”


In his book The Catalyst, Jonah Berger offers five key roadblocks that keep people from accepting change.

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