Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Why people don’t like change, part deux

with 3 comments

I earlier blogged about people’s general distaste for change (“Change hatred considered“). I was thinking about this last night, and recalled another reason people resist change.

Generally speaking, learning new things is difficult, and people avoid difficulty. (That proclivity to avoid difficulty is what’s behind the proverb, “If you want a horse to jump a fence, make the fence as low as possible.” Cf. the yessable proposition.)

Change involves learning new things—new routines, new techniques, new relationships, and so on. While people do enjoy learning new things in an area of interest to them—cf. car magazines, shaving forums, sports performance measures, and the like—that’s an exception, and even there people prefer to learn things without an external test. E.g., most who are interested in cars would enjoy reading an article on tune-up techniques, but less interested in then applying those techniques while watched by others. When reading to yourself, you can silently murmur to yourself, “Yes, yes, of course,” without really getting into the details and determining whether you actually understand, but when you move from reading about how to do something to trying to do it in the real world, your understanding—or lack of it—becomes evident.

The ease with which one can assume that something’s been learned is why skilled learners immediately test new knowledge with practical (external) application: use the new vocabulary in a sentence, say aloud the name of the new person (“Nice to meet you, Mr. Mottiyotz”), play the new joseki in a game at the earliest opportunity, and so on.

In a simple way, we see this in corporations. As Bill Oncken points out in his very good book, Managing Management Time, the goal is to get control of the content and timing of what you do. Lacking this control is stressful and can lead to burnout and depression. (Cf. Martin Seligman’s fascinating book Learned Optimism for various studies and experiments that validate this observation.) As a natural result, those with the power to control the timing and content of what they do will focus on those things that they do well. And so they become better at those things—and new learning occurs mostly in their area of expertise.

Those without the power to control the timing and content of what they do—those lower in the organizational hierarchy—become forced to learn new things routinely: how to operate new office equipment, how to work the new telephones, and so on.

So you get the spectacle of the CEO of a large company plaintively calling to a clerk to transfer a phone call on the new phone system: the clerk has (willy nilly) learned this, the CEO has avoided it.

Moreover, by being forced to learn new things more or less constantly, those lower in the organization become better at learning new things: they know how to approach it, much as those who have learned, say, three foreign languages—or even one—find picking up one more foreign language easier than those for whom it’s a first foreign language.

(This is the idea behind the Finnish experiment of having students learn Esperanto—quite easy—as their first foreign language, and then, in the second year, start the study of the German while continuing to use Esperanto in, say, their geography course. At the end of three years, those who had studied one year of Esperanto and two years of German were more fluent and knew more German than those who had studied three years of German.)

But, if pressure is not applied, most will drop away from learning new things, and will prefer to stay with things they’ve already learned, just refining the knowledge somewhat. In shaving with a safety razor, for example, the biggest hurdle is beginning: starting to learn a new skill. It’s intimidating.

And so people resist change. YMMV.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 February 2007 at 9:17 am

3 Responses

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  1. – why people don’t like change ?


    19 January 2010 at 9:09 am

  2. Thanks a lot for this article. I have been thinking a lot about this recently and I feel that you hit it right on the head. When change becomes “normal” it ceases to be intimidating – challenges are overcome, and people become stronger. They need to be willing to go through the pain of change though.


    18 June 2011 at 8:23 pm

  3. When people have learned several new things in succession, they have—on being face with something else new that they must learn–the experience of knowledge of having succeeded in earlier situations. This gives them confidence to start making attempts, and when early attempts fail, as early attempts do, they are not discouraged because they’ve been here before and know how it ends: if they keep at it, it ends with their having master yet another new skill or acquired more new knowledge or learned another new piece or whatever. If you want to get better at learning new things, learn a lot of new things and pay attention to how you learn—the process you follow—and think of how you can improve it. (I’m doing that now with my Spanish study, going to some lengths to amass a large vocabulary as quickly as I can, based on previous experience.)


    18 June 2011 at 9:13 pm

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