The emotional dimensions of change

“The President-elect, it turned out, had a gift for the behavioral arts. He intuitively grasped “loss aversion” (our tendency to give more weight to the threat of losses than to potential gains), and perpetually maximized “nostalgia bias” (our tendency to remember the past as being better than it was). He made frequent subconscious appeals to “cultural tightness” (whereby groups that have experienced threats to their safety tend to desire strong rules and the punishment of deviance), and, perhaps most striking, his approach tapped into what psychologists call “cognitive fluency” (the more easily we can mentally process an idea, such as “Make America great again” or “Lock her up!,” the more we’re prone to retain it). Even his Twitter game was sticky: “Crooked Hillary!” “build the wall.” (…[R]epetition works.)” —Sarah Stillman

Human beings don’t like change, and we are not particularly rational about it.

That means that fear and anger and even hope can trump evidence and logic (pun intended).

Which means we are more easily manipulated by demagogues than we would like to believe.

It also means that if we seek to influence others it is important to understand that reason alone seldom produces lasting change.

If “reason” isn’t sufficient, what works?

1. Research and other forms of evidence provide a rationale for change and are essential to some people before they will consider the change.

2. Well-selected anecdotes (preferably based on personal experience) and testimonials from individuals respected by group members can be very persuasive. So, too, are images and video (think back on photographs and video clips that have changed public perception related to important problems).

3. Remember that the emotional response change evokes in others is not necessarily about us (although it may feel that way) nor about the ideas or practices we promote.

Being forearmed with an awareness of the emotional dimensions of change can increase our resilience during this present moment of heightened national anxiety and fear.

It can also enable us to remain deeply engaged over the many years and decades required to bring about meaningful and lasting change in any important field of endeavor.

4 Responses to “The emotional dimensions of change”


  1. 1 rickrepicky March 1, 2017 at 6:10 am

    Good analysis on Trump’s campaign by Stillman, good interpretation on the art of change by you, Dennis.

  2. 3 jimmi77 March 1, 2017 at 7:04 am

    A good guide Dennis! As a generalization, many on the left tend to look at life analytically, craving data and information to help form their thoughts. It’s easy to forget, or not even realize, that many people see things through a very subjective, emotional lens. I might expand your item (2), to say anecdotes about a single individual tend to be far more powerful, than any other quantity. One would think images and dialogue about the tens of thousands fleeing war-torn Syria, would be just the ticket to invoke empathy for their plight. However, the little drowned boy on the beach, and the other one on the orange ambulance seat, were far more effective.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks March 1, 2017 at 6:21 pm

      Those are superb but very sad examples, Jim, of the power of images to reach people in a way that stacks of reports and data cannot. That has been true for past wars and refugee situations as well, and will undoubtedly be true in the future when a photo or brief video will touch our hearts by capturing the destructive human effects of climate change or a host of other serious problems whose complexity and abstractness make them difficult for us to fully understand intellectually.


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