Behaviour changing when change is hard – ‘Switch’ book review

Investigating Chip Heath & Dan Heath’s Switch: How to change things when change is hard

– by Loky Leung


Switch asks the following question: Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives? The primary obstacle, say the Heaths, is a conflict that’s built into our brains. Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems—the rational mind and the emotional mind—that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort—but if it is overcome, change can come quickly.

In Switch, the Heaths show how everyday people—employees and managers, parents and nurses—have united both minds and, as a result, achieved dramatic results:

  • The lowly medical interns who managed to defeat an entrenched, decades-old medical practice that was endangering patients.
  • The home-organizing guru who developed a simple technique for overcoming the dread of housekeeping.
  • The manager who transformed a lackadaisical customer-support team into service zealots by removing a standard tool of customer service.

In a compelling, story-driven narrative, the Heaths bring together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology, and other fields to shed new light on how we can effect transformative change. Switch shows that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that matter to you, whether your interest is in changing the world or changing your waistline.

To make understanding behaviour change easier to understand for everyday people the Heaths have used an easier approach to make people understand the meaning behind change and using examples like the Rider and its Elephant. “Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider.” Haidt. J, The Happiness Hypothesis. By breaking down your problem you can see where the problems are and where the change needs to take place, the problem is placed into three categories: Directing the rider, motivating the elephant and shaping the path.

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. We call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the “Path”. When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Ride and Elephant.”

They also teach us about the Bright spots ‘exceptions’, it is what Jerry Sternin used to find a solution when he flew over to Vietnam with his family to help the malnutrition children. Bright spots “provide not only direction for the Rider but hope and motivation for the Elephant.” They are “gold to be mined.”

“The Rider part of our minds has many strengths. The Rider is a thinker and a planner and can plot a course for a better future, but as we’ve seen, the Rider has terrible weakness – the tendency to spin his wheels. The Rider loves to contemplate and analyse, and, making matters worst, his analysis is almost always directed a t problems rather than at bright spots. (You can probably recall a conversation with a friend who agonized for hours over a particular relationship problem. But can you remember an instance when a friends spent even a few minutes analysing why something was working so well?)”

“If you reach your colleagues’ Riders but not their Elephants, they will have direction without motivation. Maybe their Riders will drag the Elephant down the road for a while, but… that effort can’t last long.”

There are few examples the Heaths used in their introduction; here are three examples condensed. Example 1: an experiment was done in cinema to see how much pop corn people consume whilst watching a movie and the overall result was that people were eating pop corn because it was in their hands, it didn’t matter what size it was or if the pop corn was stale, people would still eat it all.

Example 2: A business man wanted to let his boss’ know that the company he is working for is wasting vast sums of money, but instead of making boring graphs after graphs showing where the problems are he decided to get an intern to collect all the work gloves in the company and identify all the types and price.  They found out that 424 different gloves were purchased and the same gloves were bought at different price because they used different suppliers. The businessman dumped all the 424 gloves onto the large expensive and the executives stared at the display in shock.

Example 3: Persuading people to eat a healthier diet. But how do people know what diet they need to be on when there is so many options and opinion out there? Two health research professors from West Virginia found an easy option for people to change their diet by switching their usual full cream milk to 1%. “Most Americans drink milk, and we all know that milk is a great source of calcium. But milk is also the single largest source of saturated fat in the typical American’s diet.”



Heath, C, Heath, D, 2010, Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Broadway Books, New York.