• Dan Connors

Catalysts- why is change so difficult?


The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone's Mind

by Jonah Berger 2020


This book makes a bold claim- how to change anyone's mind. With the divided America that we now live in, it seems impossible to imagine how anyone's mind can be changed on deeply held beliefs and attitudes. Arguments on social media certainly don't seem to be moving the bar in any direction, as sides dig in to the certainty that they and only they are right.


Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and has written several other bestselling books on influence and marketing and how we connect with each other. With this book he leaves the world of marketing and goes broader in teaching us how to overcome objections in all areas of life.


Berger starts with some depressing studies that show how even the simplest attempts to inform and influence are met with suspicion and reaction. We know that people throw up walls when they feel like someone else is trying to overtly influence them, but studies show that even putting information out there with no attempts to influence has a backfire effect. Shown information or data that conflicts with their existing beliefs, people ignore it and drift even further away to the extremes. This was shown with people from both liberal and conservative backgrounds.


The central thesis of this book is that like a chemical reaction, we can promote change faster by lowering the barriers rather than pushing harder. Find out what is blocking the change and address it in a way so that the people involved decide to lower their guards and move their blockades. Say you are trying to get employed by a company and none of your application attempts ever results in an interview. What this book is saying is that you need to go deeper in removing the barriers in that company by getting to know people inside and what their needs are. What would make you a better fit for their needs? Only once you figure out what the barriers are can you work towards lowering them.


Berger's book is well organized with an easy mnemonic- REDUCE, and descriptions of each of its components- Reactance, Endowment, Distance, Uncertainty, and Corroborating Evidence. He lays out the problems and then gives some interesting solutions. At the end of each chapter are some great stories that illustrate the concept that he was trying to get across.


Here they are again in more detail:

1- Reactance is our habit of pushing back when we feel someone is trying to influence us. Berger uses two vivid examples- one of an anti-smoking campaign that gave teenagers control over how to fix their smoking problems, and the other is a haunting story of how a young woman used her own story to convince a Hispanic man to change his attitudes on homosexuality and transgenders. Ideas to avoid reactance include providing a menu, use questions to increase buy-in, start with understanding, and highlight (gently) a gap or disconnect that someone has in their thought processes.


2- Endowment is the false assumption that we all have that anything we currently possess is infinitely better than any replacement out there. Because its ours, we value it more, while the exactly identical thing in someone else's hands is inferior. Loss aversion keeps us stuck and afraid to take action, because we cling to what's here now. Ideas to combat this tendency include surface the costs of inaction, make it easier to recognize the difference in the new alternatives, and burn the ships (aka cut off all safe avenues of retreat so you have no choice but to move forward.)


3- Distance refers to what we see today with information bubbles popping up everywhere. We tend to distance ourselves from conflicting cultures, ideas, and people to such an extent that their very foreignness makes us reluctant to even consider them. We all have a zone of acceptance where we will consider ideas that fit our views. No one is extreme on every complicated issue- we all have things we're willing to consider in moderation if we have to. The region of rejection lies just outside of that acceptance zone, and anything from that area gets immediately dismissed out of hand.

Ways to get around the distance dilemma include finding the moveable middle, asking for less to get your foot in the door, and switching the field to find commonalities that brings you back together.


4- Uncertainty is the very human preference for a bird in the hand over two in the bush. We like certainty, and many crave it. Uncertainty can be unpleasant and unnerving, especially when our survival could be at stake. This is why we're so afraid of change, because we are risk-averse when it comes to the unknown, especially if it involves money.

To help combat uncertainty, Berger recommends lowering the bar so that people can try out the new thing as painlessly as possible. Freemium setups, like most phone apps, include a free trial period or base level service, and invitations to subscribe or upgrade coming later after people are used to the service. Offering free shipping and liberal return policies are ways that many retailers have made it easier to shop online. By reducing the chance of regretting a purchase, they make it easier to get people to spend their money.


5- Corroborating evidence is the power of getting recommendations that we know and respect. That's why positive movie reviews increase attendance, or full parking lots at restaurants drive more diners. Before readers chose which book to read next they look to reviews online or recommendations on the book cover.

Humans are very social creatures, and social reinforcement is critical for us to be more open to change. (Unfortunately this is how cults work their way into lonely people's lives.) We're more likely to approve of changes if people like us have already done them.

Berger uses the example of a drug intervention to show how large changes are possible when multiple people tell us the same thing. For large changes, a concentrated approach called a firehose strategy douses the target with information backing the change from sources they don't reject. For smaller changes, a sprinkler strategy is more effective, as the dispersed droplets of water move the tiny pebbles of resistance to change.


Berger claims that anyone's mind can be changed, which is doubtful in this divided age. If anything, conflicting information bubbles are making people dig their bunkers deeper and stronger. But this book is well organized and has many good examples of the author's points.


There have been dozens of books written about how to influence people, and there's an entire industry (marketing) that does nothing but collect information on us to figure out how to change us. Some things probably don't need to be changed, and none of us wants to admit we've been influenced by someone richer or smarter than us. Probably the best book on this topic is Influence, by Robert Cialdini, which I have reviewed in the past.


Catalyst is a worthy book, and it doesn't stoop to the sociopathic view of sales where everyone is a mark waiting to be influenced. All of Berger's methods- reactance, endowment, distance, uncertainty, and evidence are tackled in a win-win fashion where the both parties in the influence equation come out on top. If only life were that way. Until then, my guards are still up.


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