Why Emotion, Not Knowledge, Is the Catalyst for Change

Here is an interesting concept that pertains to memory, emotions and the impact of your (any) message or event in general.

At a seminar this past week I was told that we remember and retain things to the degree we tie emotion or our feelings (state or condition we are in) at the time we receive the information. A simple test is to ask yourself can you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the Sept 11 attack?  Most of us can, just like a generation before can remember JFK’s assassination.  Significant, uncommon, irregular, scary, fear or joy and pleasure inducing events affect our physical state and the message and surroundings are all attached together.

If you think about it, it’s inter-related and interesting to consider how your body language is a give away (a poker “tell”) to how a speakers message is being received & following the logic above to conclusion a hint as to how well the message will be remembered and retained.

When you’re interested, motivated, excited your body posture is upright, alert, open and you’re probably leaning forward.  When you’re tired, bored, uninterested you show it with slumped posture, sagging shoulders, avoiding eye contact and probably day dreaming about what you’d rather be doing anyway….  Your mind collects, registers, associates and categorizes the inputs together:  message + excitement or fear (heightened state of alertness or emotion) = impactful piece of data being added to the database.  This message will be retained longer and recollected easier.   Contrast that with being bored and disinterested you are unattached, tuned out will likely not hear much less retain anything of significance from that event and your brain will attach all those inputs together in its filing system.

This reminds me of a recent story on 60 minutes about people with super memory.  These people remember all kinds of detailed information about their past, and can recall it by specific date.  You could give them a date in their past and they can tell you what happened to them or what they were doing on that day.  Very interesting, I recommend watching it.  When asked how they do it they all said we don’t know we just do it, we get a picture or an image of that day.  They would go and sort through their memory’s filing system say by a particular day of a month then by the year (i.e. Jan 22 then by year, 2005, 2000, 1984, etc.).  None of them thought themselves odd, different or unique yet they have this incredible memory and seemed to have similar ways of categorizing and filing things away in their minds.  (I thought it also interesting that all the men identified so far were left handed.)  When given a date they would first remember something significant to them that happened on that day – it could have been about a relationship, a sporting event, a performance or a pair of shoes.  They had particular what I guess you could call “tags” or triggers in their memory.  Hmmm, the human mind is a very interesting and powerful thing.

Here’s the article from Fast Company:

Why Emotion, Not Knowledge, Is the Catalyst for Change

By Dan Heath and Chip Heath

At a Mother’s Day dance in 1999, Karen Gatt, 26, hit bottom. Weighing almost 300 pounds, feeling ugly and humiliated, she wanted nothing more than to slink to a corner and avoid attention. “I spent a lot of that night just looking around the room at all the other women, staring and admiring the clothes they wore, how their hair was done so nicely, and how beautiful they all looked… . They looked the way I wanted to look. They smiled the way I wanted to smile… . As I looked at their faces, something inside of me clicked. From that precise moment, I knew I had to change my life.”

She did. She lost 150 pounds, kept it off, and wrote a book about her experience called The Clothesline Diet. It’s a familiar narrative arc — a searing emotional moment that sparks a life change. One famous therapist describes this as a three-step sequence: A person sees something that makes her feel a particular way, and as a result is motivated to change. See-feel-change.

Actually, it wasn’t a therapist who said that. It was John Kotter, now a professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School. And he was talking about organizations, not people. It’s not just individuals like Karen Gatt who have emotional turning points; it’s organizations like yours. If you want change, close out of PowerPoint and start looking for the right feeling.

Curt Lansbery, CEO of North American Tool, a manufacturer of industrial cutting machinery, turned to emotion when nothing else seemed to work. Lansbery was frustrated that his employees weren’t maxing out their 401(k) investments, even though the company matched a percentage of what employees contributed. “They do not realize how much free money they are leaving on the table by not participating,” he says.

So one year, at the annual 401(k) enrollment meeting, he brought in a big bag, unzipped it, and upended it over a table. Cash started pouring out. Conversation came to a halt.

Lansbery had tabulated exactly how much money his employees had failed to claim the year prior: $9,832. Now it was sitting in front of them. He gestured at the money and said, “This is your money. It should be in your pocket. Next year, do you want it on the table or in your pocket?” There was a stunned silence.

When the 401(k) enrollment forms were distributed a little later, there was a flurry of signups, including Kelli Harris, a purchasing agent. “You always find reasons not to save money,” she says. “The money sitting in front of me made me realize I need to start doing this.” See-feel-change.

Healthy greed motivated Lansbery’s employees to save, but it was a darker emotion — disgust — that eventually sparked a change at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. As reported in SuperFreakonomics, a urologist named Leon Bender became frustrated when he took a South Seas cruise and observed that the crew was more diligent about hand-washing than the staff at his own hospital. Frequent hand-washing by doctors and nurses is one of the best ways to prevent patient infections, and studies estimate that thousands of patients die every year from preventable bacterial infections.

Bender and his colleagues tried a variety of techniques to encourage hand-washing, but the staff’s compliance with regulations was stuck around 80%. Medical standards required a minimum of 90%, and Cedars-Sinai was due for an inspection from the accrediting board. They had to do better.

One day, a committee of 20 doctors and administrators were taken by surprise when, after lunch, the hospital’s epidemiologist asked them to press their hands into an agar plate, a sterile petri dish containing a growth medium. The agar plates were sent to the lab to be cultured and photographed.

The photos revealed what wasn’t visible to the naked eye: The doctors’ hands were covered with gobs of bacteria. Imagine being one of those doctors and realizing that your own hands — the same hands that would examine a patient later in the day, not to mention the same hands that you just used to eat a turkey wrap — were harboring an army of microorganisms. It was revolting. One of the filthiest images in the portfolio was made into a screen saver for the hospital’s network of computers, ensuring that everyone on staff could share in the horror.

Suddenly, hand-hygiene compliance spiked to nearly 100% and stayed there. (Which suggests, secondarily, that the screen saver is a vastly underutilized tool for social change.)

Knowledge is rarely enough to spark change. People have to want change. Say it’s your job to lure companies to set up shop in Detroit. That’s no easy mission. Ordinarily, economic development folks are fountains of facts: School statistics. Workforce data. Infrastructure info.

What if you focused instead on creating a spark of desire? Imagine showing off a series of photos, starting with one of a huge, beautiful home with the caption: “Here’s what $250,000 will buy you in Detroit. And here’s the red-brick factory building you can buy for one-tenth of its cost in Boston. And here are the experienced workers whom you could hire for $12 an hour.” Suddenly, the business owner starts to feel a little twinge of desire. Detroit is far from perfect — but, man, think of what we could afford to do there!

This focus on feeling is unnatural in the business world, where we tend to cling to the rational and factual. But knowing something isn’t enough. The obese know they need to lose weight, employees know they need to save, and doctors know they need to wash their hands.

It takes emotion to bring knowledge to a boil.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

A version of this article appears in the February issue of Fast Company.

A version of this article appears in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company.

– Larry, In Deed

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One Response

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Frank Barnett, Larry Andershock. Larry Andershock said: Why Emotion, Not Knowledge, Is the Catalyst for Change: http://t.co/yWAtbgm […]

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