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New study suggests an easy way to prime people for change

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I wrote recently about some practical, research based tips for how you can improve the chances of getting your ideas accepted (and implemented) internally.

The post was made under the proviso that we don’t generally have any mind bending powers of persuasion that can bend people to our will by gazing mystically into their eyes.

A recent study suggests that there might be a rather straightforward way to opening peoples mind to the prospect of change however.

It suggests that when people are spoken to about the need, or even something as ‘benign’ as the steps required for change, the automatic reaction is a defensive one, as we try to justify our current behavior.

It’s something we see a lot with innovation, as the so called ‘immune system’ of the organizations is sent en masse to attack the heretical new idea.

The study suggests that if you focus instead on the values that are important to you both, then it can help to change behaviors in a way that they might otherwise find rather threatening.

So if you’re trying to innovate, maybe try focusing on the threat of a rival product or the social purpose of your organization that the innovation can help to deliver more effectively.

The research utilized brain scanning to see just how people responded when given advice about behavioral change that was actually relevant to them and their lives.

Before they were given the advice, half of the group were given a self-affirmation exercise that involved thinking about something that’s important to you.

The hope was that these kind of thoughts would trigger some kind of activity in the ventromedical prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), which is believed to be responsible for the processing of information about ourselves.

Each participant was tracked both before and after they had received the advice to try and determine whether they heeded it or persisted with their usual habits and behaviors.

It emerged that those who had been primed with self-affirming thoughts displayed a lot more activity in the VMPFC part of the brain, which the researchers believe suggests that they took on board the advice.

This was backed up by actual behavioral change in the month after the advice was given to them.  No such changes were observed in the control group that weren’t given the self-affirming exercise beforehand.

The researchers were especially pleased with the possible outcomes of their paper.

“We were particularly interested in using self-affirmation to help people become more active because sedentary behavior is one of the biggest health threats faced by both Americans and people around the world

Our findings highlight that something as simple as reflecting on core values can fundamentally change the way our brains respond to the kinds of messages we encounter every day.

Over time, that makes the potential impact huge.”

If it works in making us more active, could it also work in the various organizational change efforts that are currently taking place?

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