How to Change Hearts, Minds & Behaviours


My Purpose is Provoking Change. So I’m very interested in the change process. I’ve observed how easy it is to persuade people about something if they have no preconceived views on it, and how hard it becomes once they’ve ‘made up their mind’. I’ve observed how our worldview ‘frames’ profoundly affect what we believe, and what we’re prepared to believe, and always trump facts. I’ve observed how hard it is to bring about real, sustained change in large organizations, even with coercion and massively expensive change projects. And lately I’ve observed that:

We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. There is no time or energy left for what’s needed to save the world, even if we can agree on what that is.

In response to this, ‘KF’ wrote:

This made me think of those of us who are inclined to think about saving the world. We’re no different than anyone else but in some ways it must be more necessary, easier (perhaps because years of necessity have translated to a degree of skill), and more fun (the enjoyment of acting in accordance with, rather than denying, our nature) for us to be this way…If others are just acting out their wiring (their particular brand of what is necessary, easy, and fun) we must then try to “package” world-saving as necessary, easy, and fun in order to obtain, if not cooperation with, at least toleration of, [some] proposed solutions.

To see if this ‘packaging’ might be possible, I put together a model of how people change (their minds, their beliefs, and/or their behaviours), and the result is the graphic above. Here’s a brief walkthrough:

  1. If a person is ignorant of the information needed to precipitate a change of mind, belief or behaviour, they obviously won’t be ready to change. Only 10% of the population is aware of information about the End of Oil, so the other 90% are not going to do anything to prepare for The Long Emergency. We can have an impact on that by offering information in a clear, compelling, non-confrontational manner.
  2. If they do have access to that information, they will process (‘internalize’) it through their existing ‘frames’ and worldview. If the information is not consistent with those frames (e.g. if the information suggests an urgent need to reduce human population, and the person’s belief system is opposed to birth control), the information will be rejected out of hand. There are only two ways around this: (a) the information has to get to people before they have any preconceptions or ‘frames’ on the subject (this is why children are the best learners — they are more open-minded than adults), or (b) methods like story-telling that circumvent our usual frame-based pre-judgements must be used. Stories like 1984 and A Scientific Romance allow new information and ideas to infiltrate our brains without being processed through the frames that assess and pre-judge ‘factual’ information. We can use stories and other techniques to help people imagine different worldviews in a non-threatening but very subversive and powerful way.
  3. Once people have received and accepted new information that suggests a need for change, they are ready to change, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will change. There are three more barriers to change to surmount. The first of these is the sense of urgency. What is urgent always trumps what is important — it is natural, and human nature, to be preoccupied with the needs of the moment. Thirty years in business has convinced me that, contrary to conventional ‘change management’ wisdom, you cannot create a sense of urgency (except perhaps by abuse of power — threatening or terrorizing can be effective at creating urgency, as Al Qaeda has shown, but in the long run such abuses are dysfunctional and usually backfire). For that reason, my ‘how you can influence and provoke change’ column in the above chart is blank for step 3. People either feel that something is urgent or they don’t. You can’t force it. If someone is ready to change but has other priorities, the only things you can do are (a) wait for additional information or events to raise the sense of urgency, or (b) make it easy and/or fun (steps 4 & 5 below), so they may change anyway.
  4. Once the needs of the moment have been dealt with, people will do what is easy — things that demand little of their time and energy. For most of us that’s not much — we’re so exhausted by doing what we have to do every day that by the time it’s done, we want to relax and take it easy. Change advocates can tap into that by connecting people with others who are open to making the same change — it is easier when more than one person shares the workload. We can also provide tools, models and means to make it easier. Canada’s One Tonne Challenge (recently canceled by our execrable minority Conservative government) for example provided a simple tool for every Canadian to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases, and its simplicity was the secret of its success, and the reason why our horrific prime minister Harper, who ideologically opposes Kyoto changes, shut it down. It did not fit with his ‘frames’!
  5. If it’s not urgent, a change has to be both easy and fun, or people will defer it in favour of things that are. And once something is deferred, you know how it is — it tends to get deferred indefinitely, and never get done. The best way to make something fun is by making it a collaborative team effort (it is in our nature to enjoy accomplishing things with others, even if we have to make the time and energy to do so). Another way to make change fun is by rewarding it — making a game of it, providing prizes or recognition or enjoyable tools to do it. We all respond to different rewards, however, so if you’re going to use them to provoke change you need to know your ‘audience’, and what kinds of incentives they are likely to respond to. We environmentalists tend to rely too much on people’s altruism, and to under-use rewards to encourage environmental responsibility.

Daniel Quinn used his stories Ishmael and Story of B to introduce new information to people in a non-threatening way, in order to get them to the point they were ready to change. He says, in Beyond Civilization:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

Quinn is saying that, as entertaining as they may be, debates don’t change minds (except for those who haven’t yet really made up their minds). So, in addition to the things we can do to change hearts, minds & behaviours (the things in the left column of the chart above), Quinn points out what we should not waste time doing: bullying, nagging, arguing, preaching and debating. As much as I admire An Inconvenient Truth*, I am not convinced it’s going to accomplish anything, because it’s preaching to the choir. Who, among those not already convinced of his message, will go to the theatre to watch this film, if something easier or more fun is playing on the screen next door?

Many of the changes we need to bring about, alas, are complex ones, and require more than one iteration of this chart. Ran Prieur, according to a note I received from Peter Ireland, has called David Korten’s book The Great Turning, “Final Empire for Dummies”. What he’s saying is that, while I was impatient with The Great Turning for not having

…practical discussion of how to create models, intentional communities, sustainable natural enterprises, peer-to-peer sustainability information exchanges and personal sustainable living programs. You know, community-building stuff. Real what you can do stuff,

Korten has produced a book with information, geared to appeal to a wide variety of frames, that could get a lot of people from point A to point B — at least aware of the need and opportunity for change. They will then be ready for change, and more open to the additional stories and information (like those on this site, and Ran’s crash story, and James Kunstler’s dystopia The Long Emergency, and even William Kotke’s Final Empire) that could ultimately get them from point B to point C on this complex and difficult change journey.

We humans do change slowly! For three million years that was a blessing, keeping us from messing with Gaia’s remarkable balancing act. Now, as we careen out of control towards the end of an unsustainable civilization, it’s become a curse. But, as KF says, those of us who are ready to change are finding it more urgent, easier and more fun than it was even a few years ago. And as a result we will keep changing, andchange faster. And we do, and will do, what we must.

* Coincidentally, the Inconvenient Truth website, on the What You Can Do page, has suggestions very similar to the One Tonne Challenge. And they’re easy (if not much fun).

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5 Responses to How to Change Hearts, Minds & Behaviours

  1. Jason Week says:

    I like and appreciate the simplification of this Change Process model. But I think it can be improved on by combining it with the Layers of Resistance ( is one of the better papers I’m aware of.). Keep up the good work!

  2. spy for sanity says:

    one of the things i struggle with personally is how to deal with the fact that change does seem urgent to me, but not to anyone in my immediate life. it is difficult to keep this from being depressing and maddening (although i try to do so because i must, it is neither easy nor fun)…i guess my point is that we must also take care what we do with people once we have inspired them to change because there is no garuntee they will “stick”, and once lost it will be more difficult to win them back (due to established frames and disillusionment)…there seems to be a focus on obtaining more and more buy-in…this makes sense, but not if you can’t (to borrow from corporate speak) retain the talent you’ve already recruited. my impression seems to be that there’s a place in the movement for those who either have the money to go launch or buy in to an intentional community, are comfortably established and have professional skills to offer, or have become gurus in permaculture and survival skills…i’m not sure where the young person whose heart and mind is open but who is virtually alone in the world with not much “on paper” to offer fits in? isn’t it neccessary to build a place to welcome them regardless of their current assets and status? if they are willing to learn, work, and participate, shouldn’t there be a place for them? too often, i am saddened by the fact that even the progressive movements seem to play by old-world rules in that, if you can’t afford to play, you don’t deserve to be in the game. or that “it wasn’t easy for anyone to make changes, but we did it so you are on your own. come back when you have something to offer”. this sort of pull- yourself-up-by-your-birkenstocks ethic does not account for certain priveledges these people may have had to assist them that youngers do not (example: college costs then vs now) *or*, at the very least, that it is in the prosperous elder’s best interest to recruit, foster, and mentor willing and dedicated youngers. i think younger people who are inclined to participate sense this and feel it is either evidence of hypocrisy in the movement, or that they must do what others have done, make it in the “real world” and then get out of the game…which may or may not work; they may be seduced by or snared in the game (particularly by debt, but also by the need to numb-out in order to even cope). if elders wish to obtain cooperation and buy-in from youngers willing to change, it seems there must be a place for them to do so without already having lots of money and a law degree, or even a permaculture certificate…this life is triage…first we save ourselves, but i would urge prosperous and capable elders to please consider the plight of like-minded, if under-funded, youngers. i feel that we have a lot of potential, but many of us are (rightly) anxious, scared, and overwhelmed by present conditions. please consider what to do with the hearts and minds you win; it is no easy task to survive in the world of illusions once you are on to the game particularly if you lack the years, experience, community (even a community of one other person in real life) and resources to slip off to a yurt. please, all of us, remember those who have the sense of urgency and of necessity but do not have it particularly easy…remember that it is not only neccessary to accumulate more and more support, but also to cultivate the support already obtained lest it too be lost. in being sustainable, we must also prioritize sustaining eachother. kf

  3. spy for sanity says:

    ps. it occurs to me that my above post may be construed as being at odds with my initial one where i imply it is (among other things) easier and more fun for those inclined to save the world to do so. i do think that’s true, but i think we do a disservice not to consider that it is still quite difficult and not altogether fun (lonely, maddening, frustrating) for many of us, especially those who lack years, experience, community, and resources…and that it is in our collective best interest to discuss how to deal with this reality.

  4. Blatant attempts to persuade usually fail. It’s best to get people to think, present a puzzle they must ponder and get their minds working out various answers on their own. I have faith in people’s ability to come up with the right answers if they will only think things through and not persist in knee-jerk responses and canned philosophies.

  5. Mariella says:

    I feel my big challenge is to sow general metaphores that may lead people to ask themselves the appropiate questions whose answers may lead the to the change they need… — spy for sanity, I find this so true : “my point is that we must also take care what we do with people once we have inspired them to change because there is no garuntee they will “stick”, and once lost it will be more difficult to win them back (due to established frames and disillusionment)”… thanks for this words Spy, my mail is

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