Why is changing behaviour so hard?

I have been thinking about change a lot recently.  Specifically I have been wondering why it is so hard to change behaviours?  Why do teachers (myself included) hang onto old ways of doing things despite really compelling evidence that the way were taught is not the best way for our students to learn?  How can my students watch movies about Cyberbullying and participate in lessons on this topic yet continue to treat each other in disrespectful ways online?  I know the answers to these questions are really complex, but I thought that this video of Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert called “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine” provided an interesting lens for exploring some of these questions.

Harvard Thinks Big 2010 – Daniel Gilbert – ‘Global Warming and Psychology’ from Harvard Thinks Big on Vimeo.

In this talk Professor Gilbert focuses on why our brains can’t seem to comprehend the urgency of Global Warming, but the entire time I was watching it I kept thinking about Education and our School System.  His premise is that for our brain’s ancient memory system to be triggered the threat needs to include the four I’s; the threat needs to be Intentional, Immoral, Imminent and Instantaneous.


As it turns out our brains “devote specific real estate to thinking about the minds of other people”.  We are “hyper vigilant for signs of human agency”, which is why we see faces in clouds.  As a result the “smallest intentional action will capture our attention in a way that the largest natural accident won’t”.  I can see how this predisposition of our brains leads parents to still spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about child predators who might intentionally harm their child, and much less time worrying about the impact of media and participation in online social networks on their child’s sense of self.

Professor Gilbert has a great quote “Global warming isn’t trying to kill us and that’s a damn shame.”  In other words, if our brains saw Global Warming as something being done to us by someone else then we would definitely get off our butts and start doing something about it.  It occurred to me that the same thought experiment works for classroom teaching.  If it was suddenly discovered that we had been tricked into using the “stand and deliver then test approach” to teaching because some malevolent enemy was trying to make us dumber you better believe we would be quick to change our ways!


Our “moral emotions” are aroused by things our brain has been obsessed with forever: food and sex.  This is “why we worry about who you can kiss and what you can eat but not whether you should turn on the air conditioner”.  Again, this helps explain why parents (I include myself in this group) can easily become more concerned about child predation than the reality suggests; it triggers our moral emotions.  I also think that this could be part of the reason cyberbullying can go undetected for extended periods of time.  As long as the students involved can keep convincing themselves that it is “just joking” then no ones moral alarm goes off enough to do anything about it.


Professor Gilbert describes our brain as being essentially a “get out of the way machine”; it is very good at dealing with immediate events and consequences.  It turns out that our brains do put aside a little bit of space to worrying about how to “get out of the way of things not yet coming”, but this particular ability is “in beta” and will always be overshadowed by immediate events.  I think this particular aspect of our brains also plays into the insidious nature of cyberbullying.  If the suffering of the victim is happening in private and the events themselves happen in cyberspace and are stretched out over a long period of time then there is nothing immediate to trigger anyone’s alarm system.


This is the old ‘frog in boiling water’ example played out again.  If the rate of change of anything is slow enough we will accept it.  Professor Gilbert argues that Global Warming is not happening quickly enough to get our attention.  In terms of Education, we are always talking about how the world is changing so quickly, but maybe it too is not changing quickly enough.  It’s still possible to get into university by just cramming for exams and then forgetting everything afterwards.  It’s still possible to pass a course without doing much thinking at the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy.  It’s still possible to get a job where you can make a decent living by jumping through the prescribed hoops and not ever really finding your passion.  This is a world that we can prepare students for by teaching the same way that we have been teaching for 150 years.  The other world, the one described in Karl Fish’s well known Did You Know videos is partially here, but not enough to really make all teachers stand up and take notice.

So that’s it.  I’m not really sure what all this means.  I think this blog post satisfies some part of my brain that has always been fascinated with why people make bad decisions in the face of good data.  Possibly it is worth considering these four triggers (Intentionality, Immorality, Immediacy and Instantaneity) when trying to facilitate change.  It certainly doesn’t hurt to be aware of them.

One Comment

  1. Graham

    Yes, if we could only listen to (and take) our own advice we’d be alright…
    – get more exercise
    – use the car less
    – give daily thanks to others (spouse, friends, colleagues, etc.)
    – become financially literate
    – be more generous
    – be kind to ourselves and others
    – floss

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