To Overcome Resistance to Change, Appeal to Identity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you the kind of person who puts a lot of effort into making sure things stay as they are? Do you resist change?

When you need to overcome resistance to change, it can help to appeal to identity—what kind of person someone is, what they value, and how they make decisions. You need to either align your proposed change with someone’s identity or align their identity with your proposed change.

Keep reading to learn how to cultivate identity to overcome resistance to change.

Cultivate Identity to Overcome Resistance to Change

When making decisions, we usually follow one of two lines of thinking:

1) The consequences of the decision. We do a cost-benefit analysis to determine which decision will have the most satisfying outcome. We usually follow this line of thinking when it comes to small, simple decisions—such as what to get for lunch. 

  • However, relying on this thought process when trying to create significant changes won’t work because it’s too hard to predict the outcome of a change—there’s no way to know what the most satisfying outcome will be. 

2) Our identity. We ask ourselves: Who am I? What would the kind of person I am do in this situation? 

  • When trying to get people on board with ambiguous ideas or big changes, you’re more likely to overcome resistance to change if you appeal to identity—the essential part of your sense of self and the way you make decisions.

How to Cultivate Identity 

Identities can be relatively flexible in that people naturally adopt different identities throughout their lives, such as parent, world-traveler, or musician. However, identities can be rigid in that if you propose a change that contradicts someone’s identity, they’ll naturally resist. Therefore, to overcome resistance to change you need to either align your proposed change with someone’s identity or align their identity with your proposed change.

When proposing a change, start by asking yourself if the people you’re appealing to would say: “I want to be the kind of person who makes this change.” If so, you don’t have to convince them of much—they’ll happily make a change that nudges them closer to an identity they want to have. If the person doesn’t aspire to be someone who makes the change, you’ll have to convince them to adopt a new identity to overcome resistance to change. 

To do this, start small. Ask your audience to perform a minor change-supporting behavior. This small behavior prompts them to see themselves differently—the behavior serves as evidence that they do align with the identity you suggested. In turn, they start performing more behaviors that align with the change, which reinforces the idea that they’re the type of person who makes the change. 

  • For example, while asking college students to buy less bottled water, you encounter several students who state that they’re not interested in being more environmentally conscious. You ask these students to sign a “Keep North College Clean” pledge—this prompts these students to think about themselves as responsible citizens. They start picking up trash on campus and participating in clean-up initiatives. Six months later, you get them to commit to not buying bottled water. 

Example: Saving the St. Lucia Parrot 

In 1977, the St. Lucia Parrot was well on its way to extinction due to hunting, the illegal pet trade, and habitat destruction. Paul Butler, a freshly-graduated conservation student, was tasked with saving the St. Lucia Parrot on a shoestring budget. 

He’d studied the parrots and came up with several crucial steps for preserving the species. However, each step required law changes that depended on the support and votes of the public, who didn’t care about the fate of the parrot. To save the species, he needed to overcome resistance to change and get St. Lucians on board with his plans. 

He didn’t have enough fuel to approach the issue from an analytical angle—there wasn’t any financial gain to saving the parrot, and it didn’t make up a vital part of the ecosystem. Most St. Lucians wouldn’t notice the parrot’s disappearance at all. 

Realizing he needed to use emotions to overcome resistance to change and get the St. Lucians on board, Butler decided to appeal to their identity and align it with his cause by establishing the idea that St. Lucians are people who are proud and protective of their rare parrot. He started by making the parrot a public mascot of the island, inserting the parrot into every aspect of St. Lucian life. 

  • He gave out t-shirts, hosted puppet shows starring the parrot, had volunteers dressed as parrots lead educational events, got a local band to record parrot-themed songs, and had a telecom company create calling cards with the parrot on them. At public events, he reminded people: “This parrot is ours alone and it’s our job to protect it.” 

The St. Lucians quickly adopted the parrot as a central part of their national identity and threw their support behind the law changes that ensured the parrots’ conservation. 

Why Identity Cultivation Fails—and Why That’s Okay

You can convince people to take on new identities—or take on a new identity yourself—relatively quickly, but it can take much longer to fully overcome resistance to change and consistently make the decisions and perform the behaviors of that identity. For example, you might convince a college student in a few minutes to identify as environmentally conscious, but it might take her several weeks or months to consistently recycle, bike to work, or bring reusable bags to the grocery store.

To Overcome Resistance to Change, Appeal to Identity

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  • Why some changes succeed while others fail
  • Actionable advice for creating changes that not only succeed but stick
  • The three essential elements for successful change

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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