Changing Behaviour by Changing Situations

You’ve probably heard it before: “He’s so stubborn.” “She won’t listen.” “They just don’t seem to get how this new product will help them with their work.” “They’re so negative.” When dealing with those who resist change, this innuendo is familiar. 

But it may surprise you to learn that people are not always the problem when there is resistance to change. In fact, more frequently, the situation, not the person, is the common cause.

In their book Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain this phenomenon succinctly. A study about eating habits included free popcorn to moviegoers. Either large or medium sized buckets were distributed. With portion sizes being intentionally large, individuals could not eat all of the popcorn. In addition, the popcorn was stale – popped five days ago.

The researchers hypothesized that people with bigger buckets would eat more popcorn. Their hypothesis was correct. The bigger eaters were those with the bigger buckets. In fact, they ate 53 percent more!

Viewing the data without knowing the difference in bucket sizes, you might easily conclude that 53 percent of moviegoers eat a lot of popcorn. Or that popcorn intake is 53 percent higher at movie theatres than other venues, and so on. You may even start thinking about ways to motivate these gluttons to change to healthier ways of eating. 

Notice that as we jump to conclusions, we immediately think about how to change the person or the person’s behaviour. And we don’t usually delve into the situation to understand what caused the behaviour in the first place.  

In this experiment, we know that the bucket size contributed to the amount of popcorn eaten. Therefore, change the situation and you change the behaviour: Change the bucket size and people will eat less popcorn. How easy is that? 

When one changes the situation, there is no need to act on the individual, to motivate or cajole them into changing their behaviour. The new situation allows the individual to change their behaviour without, perhaps, even knowing that they’ve changed. 

Next time you face resistance to change, look at the environment. What situation can you change to positively affect a desired outcome? The solution may be as easy as changing bucket sizes.

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