Syndicate content

What Does It Take to Bring About Change? (PART I)

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

Why is change so difficult to achieve, even when it seems to be the best solution for a certain problem? We could start by recalling human nature that is usually risk adverse. Probably this derives from our genetic memory going back thousands of years when deviating from a known routine and venturing into the unknown could jeopardize one’s life. Currently, we still tend to be more comfortable with what we know rather than entering uncharted waters. Hesitation and uncertainty that typically accompany changes are also often coupled with a degree of “mental laziness”, as it always takes an extra effort to change old habits in favor of new ones.

Many development managers, and even some professional communicators, tend to think that media and messages can be very effective in promoting change. At the basis of such belief are two basic assumptions 1) the power of media and 2) the over-rated belief that human beings act rationally. I tend to disagree with both assumptions. Media are certainly powerful in “framing” issues and ways of thinking, but not in bringing changes in behaviours. I also fail to see humans as fundamentally rational beings and I concur with my high school philosophy professor who used to say “there is nothing more irrational than to think that humans are rational beings.” Or maybe they could be defined as rational, if rational can be considered to be something in the best interest of each individual. But if different individually-based rational behaviours are not complementary with each other, or, even worse, conflict with each, how can they still be considered rational?

For example, at the onset of the current housing market collapse in several countries, a few homeowners started to default on their mortgage payments and a few others started to sell their houses, bringing down the prices. It became clear that the housing market would take a hit and that individuals had to sell as soon as possible to minimize their losses. But if that made sense at an individual level, it could hardly be considered rational behavior at a collective level, since it would further worsen the housing crisis, causing even further losses many homeowners. 

The acknowledgment that human behaviours cannot always be considered rational helps to take into account a broader range of possible motivations and appeals, thus designing more effective communication strategies and messages. It is not enough to design messages appealing to the rational side of the mind, as it is often done when disseminating factual information. Even when they are effectively crafted and packaged in the appropriate media and they reach the intended audiences, such messages might not achieve the intended change. For example, if we know that poor hygiene causes many diseases and that by washing hands we can eliminate at least 50% of such illnesses we should not assume that simply passing this information through nicely packaged messages would be enough to have audiences adopt safe practices. If that was indeed enough to achieve change we should wonder why after 30 years of message bombardment very little has changed in term of key behaviours in water and sanitation (as well as in other areas). The reason for this is what I have been discussing above, plus a few other factors which I intend to discuss in my next posting.

Photo Credit: Flickr user David Reese


Submitted by Anonymous on
The mortgage example doesn't seem to violate even a strict form of rationality. The negative onflow consequences are external to the decision-maker, so a "rational" decision-maker would not consider them. Rationality assumptions have never implied anything about group decision making being optimal for the group. Much of game theory and public choice theory is dedicated to showing exactly how that isn't the case (consider the classic Prisoner's Dilemma). There are many interesting behavioral ways in which people deviate from strict rationality, and you are absolutely correct to highlight the importance of framing, emotional appeals and other communications strategies. But rational choice theory highlights plenty of (partial) explanations for the difficulty of implementing change; risk aversion, switch costs, interest groups that favor the status quo being more powerful than interest groups that would benefit from a proposed change, etc. Though the hand-washing problem is likely due to habit formation and the difficulty of changing social norms, rather than any rational optimisation behavior.

Thank you for the comment and for the insightful perspective you brought in. In a strict sense, you are right in highlighting that rational decisions do not have a "collective" dimension, but is that rational? Can we, and should we, consider rational a behavior that might seek (and not necessarily achieve) individual satisfaction, but might be harmful to the rest of the group? And should an action geared to achieve maximum individual satisfaction in a logical way be considered rational, even if it is not sustainable in the long term? My intention in raising these issues was to caution professionals not to take for granted the "rationality" of behaviors, and the related adoption of logical technical solutions, when designing communication strategies. Such strategies need to account also for the "irrational" side of human beings, while keeping in mind other factors such as the ones mentioned in your reply.

Submitted by Lala on
Thank you for a great post and very relevant questions. I feel, in devising communication strategies for change we have to also look at the larger structures impacting the individual. The cultural, contextual elements which are difficult to quantify and ope-rationalize from a "rational" perspective. Aspects such as "structural violence", "alternate narratives", "engagement with invisible voices" have to form part of the strategy. And a constant open-ness to change and being critical and reflexive about your own efforts. I love the rational framing and look for logic in many actions as the "housing scam" you mentioned above. But the individual and collective action resulting in "selling" cannot be explained by these frames alone. It is connected to other structural and agentic issues which have to be engaged with. Change is a complex phenomenon and we are addressing parts of it at any time while hoping for the whole.

Add new comment