Why don't we change?

Blog - Why don't we change?

Robert Aurbach | Published: October 14, 2014

We see it over and over again. People, and the institutions that they run, resist change. They resist it even when the evidence for change is overwhelming and the benefits are beyond question.

Doctors keep certifying people unfit for work despite the known health benefits of work.

Workers get stuck with the labels that doctors or lawyers have given them.

Policy makers keep trying to control every aspect of the system and are perplexed when the system isn’t individually responsive.

It occurred to me to ask the question “why?” I think there are four answers:

Too busy to see through the information glut.

In our globally-connected, Google powered, social media-inundated world, the creation of information has gotten a bit overwhelming. I read recently that the world creates the same amount of information every two days that it did cumulatively from the dawn of man to 2003. We are drowning in information, and in our overloaded state we simply stop seeing new information. Or we see it, but don’t understand what we are seeing. Or, we fail to distinguish the important from the unimportant. Doctors that fail to adopt their practice to the new research on the health benefits of healthy work are probably in this group.

Risk averse

Our world is dominated by business governance conducted from the point of view of benefit for stockholders, governmental management by commercially oriented boards, and individuals who have been bombarded with messages from the environment about the latest risks they must avoid. For these people and entities, the current way of doing business is a known and everything else is less well known. If “playing it safe” is seen as a worthwhile goal, then change is risky because it represents the risk of adverse outcomes and unwelcome critique. Government is a typical representative of this group.

In a “comfortable” pattern

The things that we get comfortable with get done over and over. Through the repetition they get associated with other things that happen at the same time. It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when we start driving toward work on a weekend or feel like it’s not really breakfast without a coffee. These associations can hold us into patterns that are thoroughly unpleasant, as when a victim of domestic violence refuses to leave the person who is abusing her or him. Change represents a diversion into “wrongness”, in the sense that when we do things that violate our patterns of association, there is a sense of being adrift from the normal. Known patterns are generally regarded as “safer” than the unknown. We even have a saying for it, “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t”. We’ve all been in this group at one time or another.

Messages from others

Sometimes we want to change, or are at least thinking about it. But other people around us have come to depend on our fulfilling a role for their own purposes. Families develop roles and there are strong forces that counter someone who wants to change their role in the group dynamic. External professionals place and hold us in roles based on their perception of their own needs to make a living in a certain way. Workplaces enforce their own unwritten rules about how people should dress, act and work, and outcast those who try to disobey. Society tells us things over and over again, and the labels it imposes, such as “victim”, can be internalised.

Why is this important? If we were to judge the victim of a crime by saying that “they must have brought it upon themselves”, most of us would think that “blaming the victim” was inappropriate. When someone “refuses” to change we should be just as slow to judgment. Some people change easily, responding to roadblocks and setbacks with resilience and determination to succeed. Some people seem to look for excuses not to change. It may not be that the latter group has “decided” not to change – it may be that the source of resistance is an important environmental factor in and of itself. When meeting resistance to change, then the first question to ask might be “What is the source of the resistance?”