The Process of Change: Experience, Feel, Change

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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What is the process of change? What roles do thought and emotion play?

It’s widely believed that the process of change involves thoughtful analysis. However, most of the time, the process involves experience and feelings. That’s why using an appeal to emotion can lead to effective change.

Keep reading to learn how to leverage the process of change.

The Process of Change

Once your rational side identifies a destination and solutions, get the driving power of your emotional side to spark action.

Many people think that all change follows the process: analysis→ thought→ change. That is, you’re presented with information, carefully analyze it, and execute a solution. However, this process only works for small changes that are quantifiable and defined, such as changing your route to work to hit an extra 1,000 steps each day. 

When large change is at stake, the process looks more like: experience→ feel→ change. That is, when you experience something that makes you feel strong emotion—such as outrage, joy, or disgust—you’ll automatically feel driven to make a change. 

  • For example, some vegan campaigns show videos of how animals are slaughtered and made into the meat you see at the supermarket. Their goal is that the experience of watching the video and feeling sadness and disgust will cause you to stop eating meat.

Understanding the process of change is crucial because it determines the success rate of getting others on board with your idea for change. When you’re stuck on the process of change that is incorrect, you assume that people aren’t changing because they simply don’t understand the rational explanation of what needs to be done, and why. 

  • For example, you might think, “People won’t stop buying bottled water because they don’t understand the impact plastic bottles have on the environment.” 

This misdirects your efforts—thinking that the audience doesn’t understand the problem leads you to put your efforts toward finding a way to explain the problem in a way that will make them care. However, your audience usually already knows everything you’re explaining—hearing the information again won’t suddenly make them care or see the need for change.

Why People Think They Don’t Need Change

Most people unconsciously have a “positive illusion bias”—that is, most of us think much more highly of ourselves than we think of others. There are three ways this bias makes it hard for people to understand the necessity of change: 

1) When you think highly of yourself, you don’t believe that there’s anything about you that needs to be changed. 

  • Imagine an alcoholic who believes he’s performing exceptionally well at work. He doesn’t see his drinking as a problem, because his work performance is evidence to him that he’s fine. Meanwhile, everyone around him can see that he’s drunk at work every day. 

2) When you assume that your behaviors are better than others’, you can more easily rationalize those behaviors. 

  • For example, if someone urged you to be more eco-conscious by lessening your bottled water purchases, you might think, “I’m not the problem. I don’t drink nearly as much bottled water as some people, and I almost always recycle.” 

3) When your actions have known negative effects, you believe that you’re “above” these effects in ways that others aren’t.

  • You might think, “Smoking is known to have some bad health effects, but I have a great immune system. I doubt I’ll end up getting a serious disease from it.”

Rational information about why change is necessary doesn’t work because that information is filtered through the positive illusion bias—it gets warped in such a way that it can be easily ignored. To get people on board with your ideas, remember the process of change: experience→ feel→ change. Appeal to their feelings by creating an experience (like the vegan message) that will elicit a strong emotional response—emotions can’t be rationalized away like information can.

Shortform Example: The Intervention 

You try to get a drug addict to commit to rehab. Assuming that the process of change is analysis→ thought→ change, you give him information about the possible deadly contaminants in his drugs and show him rates of fatal overdose in your city, hoping he’ll see the danger of using. Instead, he easily rationalizes away the information: “I don’t use dealers that would push contaminated drugs, and I won’t overdose. I know my limits.”

You change your methods—switching to the process of change that involves experience and emotion—and find a way to appeal to his feelings. You set up an intervention with his family and a few of his close friends. His daughter expresses how sad she is that she can’t spend time with him like her friends spend with their dads. His parents explain that they live in a cloud of worry, always waiting for a call from the hospital or the cops. 

  • His family’s appeal to his emotions cuts through his idea that he’s somehow invincible or smarter than others. He thought his addiction was well-hidden and didn’t affect his family—hearing the contrary, he experiences shock and sadness. He commits to rehab. 

Which Emotions Are Most Useful?

If you’re going to effectively appeal to emotions, you need to be sure you’re focusing on the most useful ones for the context. 

Negative emotions, like sadness, shock, or disgust are most effective for specific, personal changes because they tend to prompt specific actions—such as getting an addict to stop buying drugs, or convincing people to stop buying bottled water. 

Within the context of an organization, however, things are a bit different. Some organizations try to motivate their employees to change by creating crises—by announcing layoffs, for example—that foster negative emotions. However, instead of creating organizational change, this method only prompts employees to make small, short-term changes that will keep them out of danger. 

  • Instead of becoming better salespeople, your employees will likely only focus on getting their sales up for a few weeks just to avoid a round of layoffs. 

Organizational goals are usually achieved through ambiguous, long-term, and evolving changes—which depend on an appeal to positive emotions like surprise, empowerment, or excitement. These emotions broaden your vision and increase the number of things people might think about or explore. This grants you the flexible, sustainable, and creative solutions that large, long-term changes require. 

Example: Engineering Target’s Comeback

In 1992, Robyn Waters joined Target as a trend manager. The company had an ambitious goal—they wanted to become an “upscale discounter,” revamping their image to stand out from huge competitors like Walmart. 

At the time, Target buyers relied heavily on copying trends—they pinpointed fashion bestsellers, then made and sold knockoffs. While this kept Target stable, it also kept it stagnant. Instead of riding trends, they were following them. Waters wanted to change this mindset, getting her buyers on the forefront of trends instead of following the herd. 

She seized her chance for change when vibrant colors came onto the fashion scene in London and Paris. She couldn’t simply tell her buyers to go for color—their analysis of past years’ sales showed clearly that neutrals were big sellers, and colors sold poorly. 

Understanding the process of change, Waters appealed to the emotion color evoked instead: She brought brightly colored candies to all her meetings, talked about Apple’s new colorful iMacs, and showed off pictures of colorful window displays around the world. These colorful presentations made buyers feel intrigued and pleasantly surprised. She’d say, “Don’t we want our brand to make people feel that way, too?” 

These meetings quickly fanned the flames of change-supporting emotions like energy, creativity, hope, and competition. The experience of color made them see the need for the change that information and analysis couldn’t—and shot them toward their trend-forward, upscale goals. 

When you understand the process of change, you are better equipped to take an effective approach.

The Process of Change: Experience, Feel, Change

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  • Why some changes succeed while others fail
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  • The three essential elements for successful change

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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