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Psychology of Change

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Message Patrick Mattimore

Barack Obama won largely because he was the candidate the electorate felt embodied change. But in 2004, George Bush convinced people not to change, despite a war that was growing increasingly unpopular. In fact, it was Republican strategy in 2004 to paint John Kerry as a flip-flopper, whose positions continually changed. Psychology suggests that most people prefer not to change horses in midstream (or at any other time for that matter) and that only under extraordinary circumstances will people embrace change. We are, generally, change averse.  

In a risk assessment exercise that I used to use in my psychology classes, my students frequently refused to switch positions even after the class had demonstrated conclusively through a series of trials that the new position was twice as favorable as the original position the students' had staked out. One student's explanation for refusing to switch was that he "was feeling it."- That thinking error is related to belief perseverance, a phenomenon in which we commit to an initial position and stubbornly hold onto our belief despite evidence that suggests the belief is incorrect.

Another related psychological principle is commitment. Once we make a choice, according to Robert Cialdini, we experience personal pressure to behave consistently with that prior commitment. In fact, we become more confident in our choices once we make them.

In a classic study, two Canadian psychologists found that people at a racetrack become more confident of a horse's chance of winning immediately after placing a bet on that horse.

A person's choice to make a decision based upon feelings demonstrates a common thinking error that can be related to poor decision-making and may also cause us to resist change. Psychologist David Levy points out in his book, "Tools of Critical Thinking,"- that just because we feel something, doesn't make it true--feelings and truth are conceptually independent. However, research has shown that interviewers form impressions of job applicants in a few seconds or less and are confident about their judgments. Prolonged interview exposure increases the interviewers' confidence in their initial judgments, but subsequent research suggests that interviewers commonly overestimate their ability to predict who will become good employees.

Our initial choices may cause us to look for evidence confirming what we already believe and ignore evidence to the contrary. That confirmation bias often leads us to find what we are looking for and only that.

Also conceptually related to change aversion is the notion of sunk cost. Rational actors understand that once someone has spent money on something, that money cannot be recovered and they therefore act accordingly. We should make decisions based on future prospects, not upon what something has already cost us. But often we pour money into a clunker of a car, for example, because we've already "invested"- so much in the car. In the same way, we may doggedly follow a wrong path because, after all, we've come this far.

It is not hard to understand that a war that has involved the U.S. longer than World War II and a financial crisis that many suggest has been the worst in eighty years propelled both parties' candidates to call for change.  We should not underestimate, though, the strong aversion most of us naturally feel towards change which also suggests that we understand the 2008 election as a confluence of extraordinary factors.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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