Ep 132: Break Down Barriers to Change

Episode Summary

Jonah Berger, PhD, bestselling author of The Catalyst and Contagious, shows us the most effective way to be catalysts for change. The first step is to uncover what barriers stop teens from changing right now.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

It’s not easy to talk teens into anything. Simply getting them to clean their room or finish their stats homework is a nightmare!  It seems that as soon as you ask them to do something, they do the opposite, just to spite you. It can feel like you’re hitting the same wall over and over, never finding a way through.

Beyond just the realms of homework and household chores, this inability to get through to teens can have dire repercussions. If a teen is developing a serious drug problem or skipping school everyday, we need a way to reach them and help them get back on a better path. How can we break the cycle and finally get teens to listen?

Our guest today is here to share his revolutionary approach to inciting change in others. His name is Jonah Berger, and his new book is The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. Jonah’s method ditches all the nagging, pleading, and yelling for a much simpler, more harmonious process. He’s here to tell you how you can get kids to WANT to change, instead of trying to force change upon them.

In our interview, Jonah explains why trying to convince someone to do something will only push them in the other direction. He expresses why it’s so much more valuable to ask kid’s questions rather than bombard them with what you believe. He also discusses techniques you can use to help your child change their behavior when they just won’t seem to budge.

Why Teens Don’t Listen

So why is it that teens just won’t comply when we beg them to change? It’s because our entire approach is wrong, says Jonah.

In the episode, he explains how people feel a deep need for autonomy. As humans, we want to feel that we’re behind the wheel of our own lives, steering ourselves in the direction of our choice. When someone else, especially a parent, tells us to behave a certain way, we feel like our agency is threatened. This leads us to retaliate, and do the exact opposite of what’s requested of us.

This is especially true for teens who are still trying to figure out who they are. The last thing they want is for their mom or dad to tell them what to do. They want to be free to make all their own choices, even if those aren’t quite as mature as they think. As you’re standing in front of them telling them to come home before curfew, they’re thinking about all the reasons why they should do the exact opposite. The more you push, the more they dig their heels in the ground.

As Jonah points out, a lack of information isn’t the issue. Teens know why they shouldn’t be out and about at one AM. They know they should be home safe and sound by curfew. They just don’t want to do it, if you’re telling them tot. So the question is, how can we lead teens to act on their own logic? The trick, Jonah reveals, is making teens believe it’s their own choice.

Providing Kids with a “Menu”

Clearly, trying to convince kids by sheer force to change won’t work. Kids crave autonomy, and need to believe they arrived on their decisions on their own. However, we can help kids harness this need for autonomy to make the right choices for themselves.  Jonah explains how, when you want your teen to change,  you can give them a few options.  He suggests allowing them to choose their path, instead of telling them what to do outright. This guides them in the right direction while also giving them a say in their own situation.

For example, say your kid skateboards for hours after school, leading to them to fail to finish their homework on time. You want them to start coming home by five, so they have time to work on assignments before dinner. But no matter how many times you mention it, they just keep staying out later and later. Using Jonah’s approach, you decide to present them with two options. They can come home at five in time for dinner, or they can come home late–but they’ll have to provide themselves with something to eat.

So long as you’re not pressuring your teen to choose one option or another, you’re giving them agency over their own time. If they want to skate, they can do so, but then they won’t receive the meal they’ve always  expected to be fed to them in the evening. If they do come home and start their homework, they’ll earn that freshly cooked dinner. Not only will they likely arrive home when you’d prefer, but they’ll feel good about it because they’ll have made the decision themselves.

After kids leave home, they’ll no longer have you to nudge them in the right direction. They’ll have to make even bigger choices in the real world, like deciding who they’ll spend time with and how they’ll earn a living. If you want to prepare your kids to grow gracefully into total autonomy, you’ll have to make sure you’re encouraging them to ask the right questions, says Jonah.

Helping Kids Think Critically

When kids grow up, and they’re alone in the world with no parent holding their hand, they’ll have to figure out how to live a happy life on their own terms. They’ll have no idea how to remain stable and healthy if they aren’t taught to reflect and work out what they truly want. They also might find themselves in a bad spot if they don’t know how to think critically about their actions. Jonah explains how you can help kids be more self aware by prompting them to ask certain questions.

If your teen is going out with friends that you don’t know, that may make you nervous, and you might want to forbid them from going. Jonah suggests that instead, you probe them to ask themselves some questions like: Do I really like these people or am I just hanging out with them to feel “cool”? Do they ever pressure me into doing things I don’t want to do? DoI feel safe with these people?

By inspiring kids to ask themselves these questions, you’re teaching them to encounter situations with forethought, says Jonah. This ability to think before plunging into things will carry into their adulthood and help them avoid disaster. Additionally, asking broader  questions about what they want out of life and the kind of person they want to be will help them develop their own set of values for when they step foot into the world on their own.

In the Episode…

Jonah’s unique insights about how to spur change in teens makes for a great episode this week. In additions to the topics above we also talk about:

  • Why Tide wasn’t able to keep people from eating Tide Pods
  • How cognitive dissonance motivates people to change
  • How to understand the “zone of acceptance” and “region of rejection”
  • Why we should start by asking for less, and gradually ask for more

Although getting teens to make a change can feel impossible, Jonah’s advice brings a fresh and hopeful perspective. Excited to share his expertise with you!

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Get your teen to agree to a reasonable curfew: (1 of 2)

“Hey, what do you think is a reasonable time? What are the things you need to do tomorrow?”

-Jonah Berger

2. Get your teen to agree to a reasonable curfew: (2 of 2)

(Members Only)

3. Close the gap between your teen’s behavior and their values: (1 of 3)

(Members Only)

4. Close the gap between your teen’s behavior and their values: (2 of 3)

(Members Only)

5. Close the gap between your teen’s behavior and their values: (3 of 3)

(Members Only)

6. For more effect change, suggest small changes first: 

(Members Only)

7. Empathize with the excitement of going with the crowd:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Your first book was Contagious, then you wrote Invisible Influence. They’re both about how ideas spread, how people get influenced to do different things and how sometimes that communication can be difficult. Dr. Berger, can you talk a little bit about how you started writing about this stuff?

Jonah: I think I’ve always been interested in human behavior and in particular, applying the rich rules of experimentation and statistics and all these things from the hard sciences to these more social science questions. I did a senior research project on urban hydrology and I kind of went to college thinking I might be an environmental engineer or would do something in the hard sciences sort of space.

Jonah: I ended up taking a class on the intersection of science technology and society. Read an article about how the way we build buildings changes the way we raise our children. To the idea with something like, look, when we live in one story houses, we let our kids play out front because we get to see them. But when we move to big apartment buildings, we don’t want to let our kids out front because we can’t see them anymore. And so it changed the way we raise our kids.

Jonah: So, I said, “Huh, that’s pretty interesting.” I asked the professor what other classes would they recommend? They recommended social psychology and that kind of started my journey to human behavior. I took a bunch of classes at college. Read a book called the tipping point about sort of social epidemics, became interested in why things kept on and started doing research in the space. Ended up getting a PhD at Stanford and sort of studying these questions.

Jonah: And I think why people behave the way they do is not random, it’s not luck, it’s not chance. There’s really a science behind it. And if we understand that science, we can live happier, healthier, and more successful lives.

Andy: So, you already have a couple other books here. One of them is kind of about how ideas spread and catch on. Another one is about influence how people are influenced to do things. And so then this one is about how to change anyone’s mind. How is this different from the other two books? What made you feel like there was still a gap after your other two books that needed to be filled?

Jonah: Yeah. So my first book, Contagious, came out a few years ago and it kind of changed my life. So before that, I was mainly an academic, I wrote papers. I taught. I did a little bit of consulting here and there, but sort of 95% of my time was research and teaching.

Jonah: Contagious came out. It did a little bit better than I expected. At this point, it’s out in half a million copies in over, I think, 40 so countries around the world. And I started getting calls from all sorts of companies and organizations asking for help. So, “How can you get our product to catching on? How can we generate more word of mouth? We have a pro-social behavior. How can we get people to do it within organizations? How can we make good ideas spread and bad ideas not?”

Jonah: And so, I started working with everyone from the Googles, Nike’s and Apples of the world to small startups. But what I soon realized is that everyone had the same problem, which is they all had something that they wanted to change, right? So for the folks that were in marketing and sales, they wanted to change the customer or the client’s mind. For leaders and employees, they wanted to change their bosses’ mind or organizational culture. Parents wanted to change their kids’ behaviors. Startups wanted to change industries. Non-profits wanted to change the world. Change is really hard. All these organizations, all these individuals were pushing, they were pressuring, they were cajoling and nothing was working.

Jonah: And so I started wondering, could there be a better way? Could there be a better way to change minds and drive action, not by pushing, but by doing something else? And that’s really where the journey behind the catalyst started.

Andy: And so this book kind of takes persuasion and influence from a different lens. Instead of thinking about how you can move someone towards what you want them to do or how you can push them into doing what you want them to do, it’s more about looking at what’s stopping them from doing it already or why they haven’t changed already, and sort of removing those barriers or getting rid of those things that are holding them back. Where did this model come from, and how did you sort of develop this approach?

Jonah: Yeah, it’s funny. I started working on this book basically when we had our first child. And so, I was a parent in name only, I’ll say to say, in some degree at the beginning of this book. And so I thought a lot about these ideas as our first child, who’s now three and a half, was sort of coming into his own.

Jonah: But even before I had this challenge with parenting, because he wasn’t talking very much when he was six weeks or six months old, I noticed that pushing wasn’t working. Anytime we try to change things when my exec ed sessions, I often ask executives, “Hey, write something down that you want to change and write something down you’ve tried to do to change it.” Over 98% of the time, people list some version of pushing.

Jonah: And the same is true with parents. When we think about what we want to achieve, “I want to get my son or daughter to eat breakfast. I want them to get ready for school. I want my kid not to do drugs. I want them to get home on time. I want them to do their homework.” We very clearly know what we want and we assume the best way to get it is to tell them to do it. Do your homework, please do your homework. If you’re not going to do your homework, I’m not going to be able to let you hang out with your friends Friday night. I’m going to take away your phone.” We’ll use rewards and punishments. We push, we push, we push. And it’s clear why we think pushing is a good idea, right?

Jonah: If you’re in a room and there’s a chair and you want the chair to move, pushing the chair is a great way to get it to go. You push it in a particular direction and the chair goes that way. But when we apply that idea of pushing to people, there’s one problem. Not only are people not chairs, but when we push people, they don’t just go along, right?

Jonah: That son, that daughter, that colleague, that boss, that client, they dig in their heels and they think about all the reasons why we’re suggesting is a terrible idea. They come up with all the reasons why they don’t want to do it. They push back. And so the more we push, the more resistance it encourages.

Jonah: And so what I started to wonder is, could there be a better way, right? And interviewing whether it’s upselling salespeople or parenting experts, looking at transformational leaders or hostage negotiators, again and again, the same approach came up. What these folks weren’t doing is they weren’t pushing, they weren’t adding more facts, more figures, more reasons, more rewards, more punishments. What they were doing was subtly different.

Jonah: Rather than saying, “What do I want? And how can I get someone to do that?” Instead, they were saying, “Well, why hasn’t this person changed already? What’s stopping them? What’s getting in the way? And by how understanding what’s getting in the way, how can I mitigate it and make the change I want to see much more likely?”

Andy: So it’s a cool approach. I’ll let readers get through the book. You’ve broken it down into these sort of categories or steps that you can follow. And one of the first things that you talk about in the book that I found really interesting, is this concept of reactants. And specifically, you talk about the Tide Pod challenge. Which was, I guess, when a bunch of teenagers started eating dishwashing detergent pods, because they thought that would be a fun thing to do. But some interesting things happened when Tide started trying to get people to stop eating the Tide Pods. So what happened with that, and what does that tell us about influence and persuasion?

Jonah: Yeah. So as you alluded to, there are kind of five key barriers that I talk about in the book. Five key roadblocks or hurdles, whatever you want to call them, that often get in the way of change. And those are reactants, endowment, distance, uncertainty, and corroborating evidence. You put the five together and they actually spell word. And that word is reduce, which is exactly what great catalysts do. They don’t push harder. They don’t pressure. They don’t come up with more facts or punishments or rewards. They figure out what the barriers are and they reduce them.

Jonah: And so, as you noted, kind of the first one, which is reactance, is very relevant to parents. And in particular, this funny example of the Tide Pod challenge. And so as everybody knows, Tide Pods are these things that go in the laundry. They’re basically a little packet that you throw in. They’re very colorful. They have all the chemicals in them. Rather than having to measure out the detergent, you just put a packet in the laundry, it’s sort of set it and forget it. And so Tide, owned by Procter and Gamble, spent over $100 million in marketing when they launched it and they thought it could take a big chunk of the over billion dollar laundry industry.

Jonah: The challenge was, as you noted, people were eating them. And so, there was a funny video online saying they looked good enough to eat. There were pictures of them melted on top of pizza. Suddenly young people, mostly young people, were challenging one another to eat Tide Pods. It was called the Tide Pod challenge.

Jonah: Now imagine you’re a Tide executive in this situation, right? What would you do? They’re sitting there going, “Well, people should know not to eat these, but just in case, let’s remind them.” And so they did what a parent would do. They said, “Don’t eat Tide Pods.” And in case that wasn’t enough, they hired a celebrity, Rob Gronk, Gronkowski, to do the same thing. They shot a public service announcement saying, “Don’t eat Tide Pods. Is it ever okay to Tide Pods? No, no, no, no.”

Jonah: They did what health organizations and organizations have done forever. When we want people not to do something, we tell them not to do that. We think that’s the best way to do it. Stop pulling on your sister’s leg. Don’t do drugs. Make sure to have the car back by 10:30. When we want people to do something, we tell them not to do it.

Jonah: But if you look at the data, you see something interesting. Look at the searches for the Tide Pod challenge as sort of going along. Then Tide tells people not to do it. They assume that will stem, no pun intended, the tide of people interested in the Tide Pod challenge, but that’s not what happens.

Jonah: In fact, searches go up over four-fold; 400%. Visits to Poison Control go up as well. In the next two weeks, more people come into Poison Control than had in the two years prior. Essentially, a warning became a recommendation. Telling people not to do something actually made them more likely to do it.

Jonah: And this is sort of a silly example. Most parents listen to this, probably aren’t worried about their kids eating Tide Pods. But I think it points out a much broader phenomenon, right? Whether we’re telling people to do something or telling them not to do something, it impinges on their freedom, their autonomy, their ability to see themselves as driving their own behavior. And so telling them not to do something often makes them more likely to do it, not less.

Andy: Yes. And as you point out in here, sometimes even if you really did want to do the thing, or you were planning to do the thing, and then someone tells you, you have to do it, then all of a sudden, now you just don’t want to do it as much anymore. It doesn’t feel so much like you want to do it or you maybe put it off.

Andy: And I remember that as a teenager. When my mom would tell me to clean up my dishes or tidy up my room, and I would have actually been planning to do that very thing and telling myself, “Oh, I really got to clean these dishes up.” But then as soon as she said it, it was like, “But I can’t do it now, because then I’ll just be doing it because she told me to. So, now I need to wait more. Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow,” or whatever the thing is.

Andy: And you actually point out in this book that that’s a very real thing, because we want to be able to tell ourselves that we’re doing things for our own reasons or because we decided to. And we don’t want to think that we’re doing it because someone else told us to.

Andy: So I guess it makes me wonder, well, so what can you do if you do need to tell somebody, “Hey, clean up these dishes. This is getting bad.” How do you do that without triggering this whole reaction that’s going to get them to avoid actually doing it?

Jonah: Yeah. So, first let’s talk about, and you alluded to this already, the underlying psychology. And I think we sort of hear this as parents and we think, “Oh, it’s just reverse psychology.

Andy: Right.

Jonah: We should tell them not to do what we want them to do.

Andy: “Hey, leave these dishes lying around, please! Don’t clean these up!”

Jonah: Yeah. The core idea is one of freedom and autonomy. Everybody likes to feel like they are in charge. Why did I buy a certain product, do a certain thing? I did it because I wanted to. I’m in charge. I’m in the driver’s seat. I’m in control of my life. Why am I doing my homework, cleaning my room, dating this person? I’m doing it because I want to do it. But immediately when my parents starts saying, “Hey, do this, do your homework,” now it’s no longer clear whether I’m doing it because I want to do it because they told me to do it. Now it’s no longer clear who’s in the driver’s seat.

Jonah: Essentially, people, easy to see in kids, but everybody has this, basically have an anti-persuasion radar. It’s almost like a missile defense system that goes off when people feel like someone else is trying to persuade them and they engage in a number of defensive sort of counter measures, right?

Jonah: The first is avoid or ignore it. I go to the next room. I don’t listen to it. I delete the email or I leave the room when an ad comes on. Well, even worse is counter-arguing, and we talked a little about this already. Sure, someone says something and sure, it seems like our son or daughter is listening. But really what they’re doing is thinking about all the reasons they don’t want to do it; all the reasons why what we’re suggesting is a bad idea. They’re sort of pushing back on it to maintain that sense of freedom and autonomy.

Jonah: And so to get to the question you asked, which is the, what should we do? The key insight is we need to allow for agency. We need to stop crowding out their intrinsic motivation to do things, and we need to allow them to have freedom and control. Rather than trying to persuade them, we need to get them to persuade themselves. Rather than trying to sell them on what we want them to do, we have to get them to buy in.

Jonah: Now I know that may sound a little bit like magic when I say it, it’s not.

Andy: Ooh, wouldn’t that be great?

Jonah: In the book, I talk about four or five strategies to do it, but I’m happy to mention one or two here. One is simply what I’ll call providing a menu. Too often, when we ask people to do something, we ask them to do something in particular, “Do your homework. Clean up your room. Put away your dishes. Don’t do drugs.” We tell them one thing in particular. And what they’re doing is they’re sitting there and thinking about all the reasons why they don’t want to do it, mainly because they no longer have that freedom and control.

Jonah: And so what you see great change agent or great catalysts do is instead, they don’t just give people one option, they give them multiple. They say, “I want you to do X or Y. Which do you think is better?” If I’m a consultant, I’m making a presentation. I’m saying, “Well, hey, you could do X or Y. Which do you think is better?” If I’m in my dad shoes and I’m trying to get my son to eat his dinner, I say, “Hey, which do you want to eat first? Do you want to eat your pasta or your meatballs?”

Jonah: And what that does, I’m giving him a choice, and that choice allows him to feel like he is in control. He’s sitting there going, well, rather than sitting there and going, “I don’t want to do what dad suggested,” he’s sitting there going, “Well, which do I want to do first? Do I want to eat meatballs or my pasta?” Because he’s focused on that, he’s much more likely to do what I asked at the end of that request, because I’ve given him that sense of control.

Jonah: And I call this providing a menu, because it’s not giving them infinite choices, not telling them do whatever they want. It’s giving them a limited set of choices, but it’s guiding that journey. It’s guided choice that encourages them to make a choice from the set that you’ve given them.

Andy: Yeah. It’s not what do you want for dinner? It’s which of these things that we already cooked do you want to eat first?

Jonah: But even that, notice what you did. It actually relates a lot to another thing I talked about, which is asking rather than telling, right? It’s saying, “Well, hey, which of these three things would you like to have for dinner? Or how much of each of these things would you like to have for dinner?” Now you’ve given them an opportunity to participate, right?

Jonah: Imagine if you’re setting curfew. You could say, “Hey, you need to be home at 10:30.” What’s your son or daughter going to say? They’re going to say, “Oh, I don’t want to be home at 10:30.”

Andy: “That sucks. All my friends stay out til midnight.”

Jonah: Yeah. What if instead you say, “Hey, what do you think is a reasonable time? What are the things you need to do tomorrow?””Oh, well, I have school and this and that.” “Okay. Well how much sleep do you usually need to be ready for school?” “I don’t know. Eight and a half, nine hours.” “Okay, great. Well, what time do you think you then need to be home? Home to have enough sleep to be ready for school tomorrow?”

Jonah: And now what they’ve done right now, first of all, you’re not telling them what to do, you’re asking them and they’re more than happy to think about the answer. But second, because they’ve come up with the answer, they’re much more willing to commit to the conclusion. They’ve just told you they need nine hours of sleep. So it’s much harder for them to go, “Well, hold on. I don’t need to be home by 10:00,” because they can do the math. They’ve told you they need nine hours of sleep. And so they go, “Well, I probably should be home by 10:00.”

Jonah: Right? And so by encouraging them to do the work, they’re much easier to go along with you suggested because it’s their idea, not yours. What great catalysts, great change agents are so good at, is they’re so good at giving others the power and make it feel like it was their idea. You don’t care who comes up with the idea. You care about what the idea is. Give away that power. Allow others, allow your kids to come up with the great ideas, but guide them towards those great ideas.

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About Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and internationally bestselling author of Contagious, Invisible Influence, and, most recently, The Catalyst.

Dr. Berger is a world-renowned expert on change, word of mouth, influence, consumer behavior, and how behaviors catch on. He has published over 50 articles in top‐tier academic journals, teaches Wharton’s highest rated online course, and popular outlets like The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, NPR’s Marketplace, CBS This Morning, CNBC, and USA Today. often cover his work. He’s keynoted hundred of events, and often consults for organizations like Google, Apple, Nike, and the Gates Foundation.

Dr. Berger has helped hundreds of companies like Apple, Google, Nike, and GE get their products, services, and ideas to catch on. He’s helped Facebook launch new hardware, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sharpen messaging, and small start-ups, political campaigns, and nonprofit organizations change minds and drive action.  He’s also keynoted hundreds of major conferences and events like SXSW and Cannes Lions, and spoken to audiences from 10 to 10,000 people around the world.

Jonah has been recognized with a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching, including various early career awards. He was named one of the top 30 leaders in business by the American Management Association and one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine. His research has been featured multiple times in the New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas” and Wharton gave him the Iron Professor award for awesome faculty research.

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