Thursday, June 27, 2019

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

In my quest to better understand how to help people manage their money better, I followed a reader’s recommendation to try a psychology book by Chip Heath and Dan Heath called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. They explain how human nature makes change difficult, and they offer techniques for overcoming these difficulties.

The book begins with the observation that “Your brain isn’t of one mind.” Kahneman called the two parts of our minds System 1 and System 2, but the Heaths prefer a different analogy: “our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is the Rider.” Making changes requires getting the Elephant and Rider in agreement.

We can see the tension with a personal matter such as getting out of debt. The Rider might want spend less, but the Elephant would rather go out to eat than cook. You might think that we’d only have to deal with people’s rational sides to make changes at an organizational level, but you have to appeal to people’s Elephants if you want anyone to care enough to change their behaviour. Even executives need to care about a new idea at an emotional level to move on it.

A common theme in the book is that “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” When you’re trying to get people to change their behaviour, it’s vital to be crystal clear about what they should do. Any confusion makes it easy to just slip back into familiar old patterns.

Another common theme is the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” We have a tendency “to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.” We tend to declare change impossible because of people’s natures when the right prodding can lead to big changes.

Only small parts of the book are directly relevant to financial matters. In one section, the authors are positive about the “Debt Snowball Method.” This is where you pay off small debts first rather than going after the debts with the highest interest rate. The reason is a matter of motivation. Being able to cross a debt off a list provides motivation to keep going. Paying off $200 of a $5000 credit card debt leaves us at risk of giving up.

There are nine steps the authors offer for making a “switch.” Here are four of them.
  • Rather than focus on problems, look for bright spots and encourage more of what is going right.
  • Script very specific changes rather than thinking about the big picture.
  • Find a way to make people feel strongly about the needed change.
  • Shrink the change to a first step that isn’t daunting.

The authors tell compelling stories, and their writing is page-turning. My first reaction is that the book’s methods must work well, but I can’t be sure because I haven’t tried to use them yet. I think the book is worth reading because it gives readers a different way to think about motivating change in themselves and others.


  1. I used to have a vague desire "to be a better spouse," but made no progress. Using the idea of "very specific changes rather than thinking about the big picture," I resolved not to interrupt my husband. And voĆ­la, I became a better spouse!

    1. @Deborah S.: That's a perfect example of making a specific small change. Well done! I haven't put the ideas in this book to good use yet.