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Proven Psychological Research: How to Change a Person’s Attitude… Forever

If you have any interest in behavior change whatsoever, the research I’m going to share in this article will be very valuable to you.

In fact, I believe this to be so important, I decided to attach a bonus video of yours truly. This way, if facts don’t get you excited maybe I will (you know what I mean).

Anyway, let’s get started. First of all, the very first thing you must come to realize is that you must become an “expert at establishing attitudes”. Not software. Not instruction. Not “lifestyle”. Not how to sell widgets or whatever. Now, of course, other skills are important and you must learn about them, but, the first and the most important thing you must learn is psychology.

And it’s easy. You see, social psychologist Timothy Wilson has already done the grunt work for you with his book―Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.

And, since I’m so excited about Wilson’s research, I’m condensing his 288 page book into this simple article and video. Ha!

Just keep reading.

O.K., here’s my idea: What if you took Wilson’s psychology research and did the following:

Incorporate it into your work!

You know what? Malcolm Gladwell did. With his New York Times bestseller, Blink. From the man himself:

In Blink, I probably owe a bigger intellectual debt to Tim Wilson (and his longtime collaborator, Jonathan Schooler) than anyone else . . . .

- Malcolm Gladwell

Now, I don’t know about you, but I want to ride that Timothy Wilson gravy train too.

So, let’s get to how Wilson’s research in human behavior will have you making a lasting impact on people’s lives.

Whetting your appetite

As I was saying, Wilson put together a family of techniques that can nudge the way a person thinks and feels.

Why is this important? Simple. These techniques help people who are struggling—bad behavior, bad performance, bad attitudes—find a new, better path.

Professor Wilson calls this “story editing”.

You can call it “opportunity”.

Think about it. You can use your training to encourage people to edit their personal stories in ways that lead to long term changes in behavior and well-being. Wow!

Now you have practical data on how to change a person’s self-perception. And, in my opinion, this is more important than getting someone to recall facts or follow procedures.

I think most people would agree, self-perception is the difference between ‘C’ players and ‘A’ players.

In other words, this is about dramatic change.

Want proof? Here are, I believe, great reasons you should consider social psychology research:

Reason #1 – it reduced the achievement gap in American middle schools.

Reason #2 – it increased enrollment in high school science classes.

Reason #3 – it reduced drinking on college campuses.

Reason #4 – and it reduced adolescent violence.

Not bad, eh?

Just imagine if your training was able to achieve such radical change. It sure would grab the attention of potential clients more than fancy graphics, wouldn’t it?

On a side note, just to clear the air, you aren’t obligated to apply this to fix social ills. Bonus if you do.

Know this: Wilson’s research WILL benefit your audience.

It did for Gladwell.

Onward.

Enter the dark arts

Question: Are you changing attitudes or dispensing information?

The truth is, most of us just don’t care about changing attitudes… unless, of course… that change affects us personally or business-wise.

What do I mean by attitude? Hey, I’m glad you asked.

O.K., by attitude I mean: confidence, self-control, persistence, thoughtfulness, responsibility, etc.

In other words, attitudes are what a person expresses based on their self-perception. And, in my experience, this is where I’m told adding “attitude change” (as part of training goals) is too ambitious to consider.

But listen, your goal to nudge someone’s self-perception exists nonetheless―you’re hoping for it. Right?

So, why don’t more teachers, trainers, and coaches focus on what makes the most impact? Actually, there are two reasons:

1. They don’t know how to make someone think or feel a certain way (especially in the long term).

2. And secondly, they don’t know how to measure changes in self-perception.

Do you need voodoo magic for this?

Read on.

Basketballs, 20 Percent Time, and Aristotle

Phil Jackson won 13 NBA Championships. Two as a player, and eleven as a coach.

I think it’s safe to say a person with a record like that knows what they’re doing.

Now, get this: As a coach, Jackson was known to give book assignments to his team. Every season he would hand out a range of deep, meaningful, and sometimes emotional novels to his players.

Why?

Google has something in place called “20 percent time”. This time is for engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily in their job descriptions. They can use this time to develop something new, or if they see something that’s broken, use the time to fix it.

Is that the whole story?

Now, before I answer these questions, you first need to go back in time. Roughly, 2,400 years.

Aristotle suggested people can change their self-perception by first changing their behavior, “…we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlling by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.”

Ok, let’s get back to the future.

Today, social psychologist Timothy Wilson explains this as, “Do Good, Be Good”.

In other words, people’s behavior shapes the personal narratives they develop. If they act kindly toward others, they begin to see themselves as having kind dispositions, and the more they view themselves as kind, the more likely they are to help others—thereby strengthening their new narrative.

- Excerpted from Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change

Wowza!

Action Jackson

Well, what do you think is the difference between the attitude of someone who reads books, and someone who doesn’t?

According to Outliers: The Story of Success, the difference is quite significant—at least worth mentioning.

In my opinion, Jackson’s goal was this: through book assignments, he was “coaching” his players attitudes towards success (off the court).

Think about it. Jackson wouldn’t be satisfied with men who were just great basketball players. (Maybe that’s where other coaches go wrong?)

By expecting book reading from his players, Jackson was explicitly reinforcing an attitude he wanted.

So, do you think Jackson’s book assignments nudged the player’s self-perception?

Social psychology suggests Jackson was steering his players personal narratives.

Taking off the rose-colored Google glasses

Which brings us to Google. What’s going on there?

Simply this: Google wants to nurture their ‘A’ players.

And, for a person to feel they are an ‘A’ player, they need to be in an environment that encourages ‘A’ player behaviors. Namely: thinking.

As you know, most employers are stuck in an industrial revolution mindset (time is spent assembling widgets and following procedures). That leads to: no time to think.

You see, the ‘A’ players (the innovators) throughout history are known to use their time to think. Darwin in his study, Jobs on his long walks… it’s also said the genius of Newton and Einstein came about because they simply took the time to let their minds wander.

Remember how The Do Good, Be Good approach involves changing people’s behavior first. Well, in the case of Google, this behavior change is getting employees to stop working—and start thinking.

It’s psychology.

It’s do good not read good

Believe me, behavior change is where it’s at!

Check this out: A recent study wanted to redirect the narratives of teen girls who were at risk of getting pregnant. And, what the researchers did was have the girls participate in volunteer and community work.

Why not hand these girls sex education pamphlets?

The answer is simple: The researchers engaged the girls in activities that would get them to change their personal narratives—be engaged and act responsible.

Did the study pay off? You bet it did. Hard evidence showed a change in behavior a year later. Girls in the program were significantly less likely to get pregnant, and also showed positive academic effects.

Anyway, social psychology clearly shows you don’t change self-perception by asking for it.

Phil Jackson could have said to his players, “Do something positive in your free time.”

Google could say to new hires, “Read the Steve Jobs biography… then be that guy.”

But, as you know, objective circumstances matter.

As a side note: there’s more to it than that. For example, implementing activities designed to change behavior should be done as interventions along with disciplined reflection.

So, is the main point of this article clear? It is. Good.

Let’s go on.

Deconstruction time

Now, at Skill Agents, we’ve talked about important ideas before. Scenarios and Storytelling are the first that come to mind.

But now, let’s get to the core of behavior change. I’m going to show you how you can apply social psychology (Do good, be good) to your coaching, training, or e-learning—in 3 easy steps.

Anyway, I’m going use coach Jackson as my example.

Now, let’s assume empathy is the attitude Jackson feels makes for a balanced player and a winning team. I think that’s probably true.

So, the question is: How does Jackson observe empathy?

Well, as a coach, Jackson can foster activities that reinforce THAT attitude.

Did you know further psychological research says reading a story prompts helping another person. Was Jackson’s book assignments purposely creating championship-type teamwork? Hmn, maybe?

Anyway, let’s deconstruct the psychological warfare in Jackson’s locker room:

1) Identify the activity—So, Jackson has identified the activity that reinforces the attitude he wants from his team: reading.

2) Reflect on the activity—Jackson reinforces a player’s personal narrative based on the activity. Remember: Jackson considered these “book assignments”. So, I doubt he gave a book to a player without ever following up.

3) Acknowledge the goal—Players need to know what’s in it for them (the benefits of participating). So, Jackson makes clear the benefits of adopting the attitude he desires, and the fact that reading reinforces it.

So, if you want to change attitudes (in a positive way), I can sum up this deconstruction in three words…

Identify, Reflect, Acknowledge!

Just do good

Read this article two or three times. There’s a lot here for those of you ready to take it to the next level.

Now, before you go off and begin changing attitudes—for the better—I have a couple things I want you to do:

1. In the comments, tell me where you see yourself deconstructing Do Good Be Good. Are you already doing this yourself?

2. If you have a friend who is a fan of psychology, please email this article to them. I’d love as much feedback as possible.

Share your thoughts with others

 

  • Dave!

    Really nice summary of the “Identify, Reflect, Acknowledge” concept. As with all truly great ideas, it has a certain ring of ‘common sense’ to it, and that only adds to its power. I’m looking forward to seeing how I (and others) can incorporate this into their training, as well as the results that come about.

    • Ryan Martin

      Hi Dave, thanks for your feedback. I think the tough part for trainers will be to think attitude first, then think of a behavior that will reinforce it. Most will want to cling to the subject matter (where their comfort is).
      You do see this A LOT in teambuilding training. Where participants do activities that are completely unrelated to their jobs. The “conference bike” comes to mind … needless to say, it probably takes some time to come up with the right activity fit.

  • Rhonda

    I am also looking forward to seeing others’ ideas of how to incorporate this into their training. I recently took part in a group that was using the principles of Adlerian Theory to change one’s inner story, thus bringing about positive changes. You can read more about Adlerian theory here: Classical Adlerian Theory and Practice

    • Anna Sabramowicz

      Hi Rhonda!
      Yes, this concept is just one of the strategies that Timothy Wilson discussed in Redirect – Basically, how do you encourage positive story-editing?

      Thank you for sharing :D

  • Carmine

    Excellent article on behaviour change. Nice simple model. Thank you for putting it together and sharing.

    • Anna Sabramowicz

      Thank you for reading Carmine :D

  • Fred Sheahan

    Great thoughts, Anna. Changing cultural mindsets through agency and self-confidence goes a long way. That said, I’d caution educators, HR, and leaders not to treat “do good, be good” or “Identify, Reflect, Acknowledge” as a one-time event. It takes authenticity and consistent effort. Educators and leaders who treat it like a single intervention might be disappointed with its lack of impact and longevity. As part of a training program, I’d challenge instructors to consider how they’ll integrate meaningful, follow-up touch points or ways to make this approach more holistic.

    • Ryan Martin

      Totally agree. While we were researching this article. “e-learning interventions” is a term that came to mind. To much online education is a huge content dump, or one-off “sales training” (or something similar).
      If educators, HR, and leaders start to think Do Good, Be Good and recurring interventions (like Google’s 20% time, or Jackson’s book assignments) … they’ll be forced to think longer term and see that training is not a one-off, once a year BS compliance check-off.
      Personally, I think if a training or e-learning company can embrace Do Good, Be Good interventions as a solution (e-learning or not) they’ll have a pretty strong niche … hmm…

  • Dawn

    I agree with Dave that the summary of the concept is great and puts into simple terms how to incorporate it into training. I know it works having implemented programs based on the concept (well similar concept–>different names) above with success.

    However, I think this concept can only be as successful as the trainers’ belief and understanding. Many training departments have people who came up through the company (the concept of anyone can learn to train but only SME’s know our business) or “grew up” in training in the world of rapid development in which speed was prized over sound theory craft and design. This means that there is a whole generation of trainers out there that have years of experience but are still locked into what I call “old ways” of thinking. Even if they think the concept is cool or beneficial, they will shy away from it or lock it away as intellectually interesting because change is uncomfortable.

    I think for something like this to fully be implemented successfully, trainers should first take it upon themselves to learn first-hand how the “Identify, Reflect, Acknowledge” concept works by identifying behavior they wish to see within themselves/team before they attempt to place it into their training. Many times the people taking the class suffer because those designing it only have a partial understanding of the theory they are attempting to implement.

    I’ve been part of teams that lay challenges for the group much like Coach Jackson (i.e. book club, discussions about case studies, etc.) did and I think it is a “must” for any training professional to be intimately familiar with the concept and have stories of their own that can be shared within their company/team on how exactly the theory works. Stats are nice, but personalization is more potent (im my opinion).

    When I train trainers, one of the stories I start with is an example of how I failed spectacularly at creating a program for a group of trainers and why that was. I outlined where I failed to follow the steps, even though I knew better, and how that affected behavior. This allows me to personally relate the concept in an almost tangible way so they understand why it’s important to follow the steps, what those steps entail, and how an incomplete application due to inexperience and lack of understanding can hinder someone’s development. It also allows me to open the floor up to them to beging thinking in terms of how to apply the concept to their current or future projects. I think sometimes this element of “what can go wrong” and how to avoid it is left out when discussing theory for better training.

    While I acknowledge that many people who read this site are professionals with more experience than myself and understand the concept well, I thought it was something to consider. It’s a challenge I’ve faced many times when trying to apply this concept (or apply variations on the theme) :)

    • Ryan Martin

      Funny you mention the personalization point. Anna wanted to include her own experience donating blood as a “Do Good Be Good” example. The idea being exactly how you described (it ended up on the cutting room floor during video editing)…
      I think this article is excellent food for thought. Obviously not a complete solution. But those willing to try it (however they want), I think, will only grow professionally.
      Regarding “old way” thinking. I recall a great science quote about scientists unwilling to change their opinion even after years of evidence showing their ideas are no longer valid … anyways, the line goes something like they don’t change… they die.
      It’s a witty quote, not as morbid as I make it sound :P

      • Anna Sabramowicz

        Dawn, thank you!

        I’m going to add another point about the way you share your failure with your trainees… this is actually a fantastic strategy and it is a fact that we learn better from other people’s failures than our own failures. I believe it is called “the law of attribution”

        Another piece, that we really could not delve into as much without making this the epic post is that these expectations (higher goals) are there whether we acknowledge them or not, and if they are not expressed and set as goals to work towards… well they might taint the rest of the training experience. You might never be truly pleased with the outcomes of your sessions, even if people rocked them, because the kind of attitude change you wanted to see happen along with the acquisition of those skills was not there.
        We can’t blame the trainees for not being able to read our minds about this, so we really have to be more explicit.

  • Jennifer Wenzel

    Interesting timing with the Yahoo! memo outlawing working at home hitting the media this morning. Sounds like there’s an organization that needs to rethink their policies in light of behavioral science. Particularly, don’t they realize that commuting (let’s say the average 25 minute one-way commute) to work takes away over a half hour that their employees could be spending to better their work output, or solve problems in their organization? I understand Yahoo! wants their employees to be engaged–however, as this article points out, there are far more ways to engage a person than putting their butt firmly in a chair for 8 hours.

    • Ryan Martin

      Jennifer! We got to get this article and video on the media’s radar, pronto!
      Seriously, you make a great point. When you’re aware of the science, you start seeing it in effect in MANY day-to-day situations.
      Thanks for the heads up!

  • Jeff Davis

    Once again, Anna and Ryan hit it out of the park. Our learning, specifically e-learning, can’t be successful until we’re doing, not clicking. Wilson’s research really backs up everything else you’ve been talking about in this blog. The previous commenter is definitely correct, though, about trainers embracing this mindset. I think our customers will have to come around to it, too.

    Hopefully “Experiments in Instructional Design” becomes “Standards in Instructional Design.” Blessings to both of you.

    • Ryan Martin

      Thanks Jeff. I think this will eventually be a niche for those who want to explore it further and put in the work for their clients.
      Anna and I were talking yesterday, and I said this article was a subtle indictment of the instructional design profession … ’cause nobody wants to admit that all they are doing is content dumps and/or pushing information. We hope this inspires more discussion and solutions.
      Thanks for the kind words. :)

  • Theresa

    Love this! It totally relates to the question I always ask, and often have to ask multiple times, when working on a learning project: What do we wish our participants/learners to do differently as a result of the training? The psychology within the work we do is directly related to the skills we are trying to teach.

    • Anna Sabramowicz

      Theresa, thank you!
      Totally agree, you gotta be persistent with those questions – many forge ahead without solidifying the desired results = dangerous :)

  • Farnoosh

    Fabulous video, thanks for reaching out to me, Anna, via LinkedIn. You are a FAST talker but I love love LOVE your videos!

    • Anna Sabramowicz

      Farnoosh, great to see you visit here :D
      I will do my best to try to catch more breaths in the future. That should help! Ha!

  • Norman

    I have read this through a couple of times now and watched the video, it is a great summary of a complex concept, that had me reaching for further reading; but I returned to this article as it sums up the concept perfectly.
    I have begun to introduce it in my 1:1 work, and am exploring how I bring it in to my group learning environments.

    • Anna Sabramowicz

      Norman – thank you!
      The great reasons link I posted in the “whetting your appetite” section also mentions the reflective writing technique that I was not able to get into here – I really like that one – and on its own it would warrant a post :)
      If you have the time and inclination to share your applications and results, that would be fantastic – no pressure!

  • Art

    Great article…my focus of my facebook page and twitter is to support attitude change. I agree that to change our story about ourselves we need to have new experiences that are rewarding and show us the benefits, so that we want to repeat them. It is more clear to me now how I can incorporate more questions to initiate new experiences for followers. Looking forward to your newsletter.

    Thanks Anna

    • Anna Sabramowicz

      Art – you’re welcome!
      Glad you found this useful and are thinking of how to apply it in many areas of your life (and work!)

  • Aris

    Very interesting! Thanks for your effort. I’ve learned a lot from your video. :-)

  • Majid

    informative and motivating

  • About Anna
    Co-founder of Skillagents.com, Lead Instructional Designer at eLearnerEngaged, public speaker, learner, nature lover... and Dog Whisperer in training.

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