Creating opportunities to help people in East Kent to live happier and healthier lives

What Gets in the Way of People Changing?

In an ideal world behaviour change would happen like this…

‘’I know exercise is good for me”    “Therefore, I am going for a run’’

But, more often we know that we should do something but we choose not to…

‘’I know exercise is good for me’’      ‘’But I prefer to stay at home and watch ‘Game of Thrones’’

I am sure that we would all recognise this example.  Even when we understand that something would bring a positive reward, we still choose to do something else.  

Why is this?  

I want to talk about an important concept from neuro-science which explains why behaviour change is such as challenge for us. Often the heart and mind do not agree!  The brain has two independent systems at work. We have the emotional side that is instinctive and feels pain and pleasure and then we have the logical side that is rational and reflective.  

Using an analogy by Jonathan Haidt in his book the ‘Happiness Hypothesis’ he uses the metaphor of the elephant. The rider is our conscious, cognitive, logical mind driven from the head. It knows what makes sense, plans for the FUTURE and uses conscious resources.  Perched on the top of the elephant it holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But their control is precarious because the rider is so small compare to the elephant. The weakness of the elephant is clear it’s lazy, skittish and looking for the quick payoff (game of thrones) over the long-term payoff (going for a run). It represents our unconscious, intuitive, emotional brain.   The elephant is interested in what is happening NOW.  When change fails normally it is because of the elephant.   The elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the rider’s strength.

This is really useful to know when setting goals which require people to change their behaviour!  In neuroscience this is called temporal discounting or current moment bias. 

As a leader of change, you need to appeal to both the rational and the emotional.

So how is this relevant to creating a community coaching culture in Thanet? Well it has implications on two levels:

  • Firstly, the rational part.  What can be planned and put in place to develop such a community?  What do we mean by the term and what actions would help to develop it?  If it is about mutual support and help then what community groups would be encouraged and what infrastructure would they need?  For example, for a type 2 diabetes group to succeed there needs to be sponsorship, marketing, leadership, structure and routine.  How can local GP practices get involved and lead the way? And/ or how can we get funding for qualified coaches from THM to drive this change forwards and to set up groups that become self-directing in the longer-term? 
  • Secondly, for the unconscious part, it will need to be clear in change management terms ‘what’s in it for the participants to want to come along?’ This is often called ‘WIFFM’ or what’s in it for me?  We learn from current moment bias that the advantages of making a change now need to be significantly higher than existing habits.  This is the challenge.

Yet, we can learn from coaching community projects that are successful and model their motivational approaches, leadership, content, structure and process.  With this there is a much stronger chance of success.