My guest this week is Jonah Berger, a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, an internationally bestselling author, and a world‐renowned expert on change, word of mouth, social influence, consumer behavior, and how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. He has published over 50 articles in top-tier academic journals, teaches Wharton’s highest rated online course, and popular accounts of his work often appear in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Business Review. Over a million copies of his books, Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind are in print in over 35 countries around the world. Berger often keynotes major conferences and events like SXSW and Cannes Lions, advises various early-stage companies, and consults for organizations like Apple, Google, Nike, Amazon, GE, 3M, and The Gates Foundation.
In this episode, Jonah and I discuss how parents can be a positive catalyst in improving their child’s behavior versus enforcers of change experiencing constant pushback. Jonah breaks down the behavioral patterns behind the persuasion of change and helps parents interact and instill change without disrupting behavior. To learn more about Jonah Berger click here.
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“Pushing” For Change
- We often push others (children, spouse, colleague) when we want change to happen
- This easily results in a harder pushback from the individual whose control in the situation feels threatened
- 5 key barriers discussed in The Catalyst
- R= reactance, E- endowment, D= distance, U= uncertainty, CE= corroborating evidence
- Giving a small set of options to shape and encourage people to go into a particular direction providing freedom and control but still not allowing any option to be made
- I.e. With toddlers, “Which shirt do you want to wear? This shirt or that shirt?”
- These directives empower the individual with a choice and sense of control
- This results in removal of frustration that typically comes from forced directives
Where to learn more about Jonah Berger…
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Jonah’s Story … 00:02:50
“Pushing” For Change … 00:07:20
Guided Choices … 00:10:10
Be A Catalyst … 00:09:00
Be A Role Model … 00:19:40
Episode Wrap Up … 00:24:52
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I am Dr. Nicole and on today’s show, we’re going to dive into a bit of a different topic than we normally cover, but I know you’re going to love it. We all face many situations in our lives where we try to get other people to do certain things, think a certain way, change their behavior in a certain area. Comes up all the time in our lives as parents with our kids, with our partners, even extended family members. Maybe you want to change the way your child is behaving at school or you’re trying to get your partner to get on the same page about how to feed the kids in the best way. These situations can lead to frustration on everybody’s part and we’re left wondering, is there a better way to do this. Well, on today’s show, we get to hear from someone who has written a brand new book about a better way to change someone’s mind. Jonah Berger is here to tell us about his new book ‘Catalyst’, and how the concepts in the book can help us be more effective with our kids and our families. Let me tell you a bit about him.
Jonah is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and internationally bestselling author, and a world-renowned expert on change, word of mouth, social influence, consumer behavior and how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. He has published over 50 articles in top-tier academic journals, teacher Wharton’s highest-rated online course, and popular accounts of his work often appear in places like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review. Over a million copies of his books Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind are in print in over 35 countries around the world. He often does keynotes at major conferences, advises many early-stage companies and consults for organizations that you’ve all heard of like Apple, Google, Nike and more. Jonah is also a parent and has a brand new baby at home, which makes me extra grateful that he is taking the time to be on the show today. Welcome, Jonah.
Thanks so much for having me.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
So let’s dive in, and I want to start with what got you interested and excited about writing about the concepts that you cover in Catalyst.
A few years ago, I came out with my first book, all about word of mouth. It’s called Contagious: Why Things Catch On. That was sort of 2013, and that book really changed my life to some degree. At heart, I’m an academic, I do lots of academic research. That was my first foray into more popular perspectives, and since then I’ve had a chance to work with a variety of organizations. Everyone from big Fortune 500 companies like the Googles and the Apples and the Nikes of the world to small startups and everyone in between. What I noticed is that everyone that I worked with had the same problem, which is they all had something they wanted to change. If they were in the sales or marketing functions and they wanted to change a customer or client’s mind, employees wanted to change their bosses mind, parents wanted to change their children’s mind, couples, partners wanted to change their spouse’s mind. Everyone had something they wanted to change, but interestingly, we all are seemingly going about it the wrong way. We sort of push and prod and persuade and try to get something to happen, and often, it doesn’t work. So what I wondered is, well, could there be a better way? And I spent the last decade studying the science of change, how it works and interviewing a range of experts, I really appreciate your help in writing this book as well, to get a sense of why change is so hard and could there be a better way to do it than the way we often approach it?
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Such an important thing because really, it gets to the heart of so much of our human experience, right? Knowing things that we want to do or we want to get other people to do, but how do we actually make that happen? How do we get people to do those things, how do we get ourselves to do those things? So I love this idea, the title of Catalyst. You know, I first read that when you sent the first email to me saying, this is the title of this book, I thought, “Man, that brings me back to my biochemistry days! Catalyst reactions, right?” So let’s talk about that term. What does it mean to be a catalyst, where does that come from?
So taking a step back for a second, what do we do when we try to change minds or try to change behavior? And I think we often do some version of what I’ll call ‘pushing’. Whether we’re trying to change our child’s behavior, whether we’re trying to change our spouse’s opinion, whether we’re trying to change an extended family member’s view or something along those lines, we think if we just provide a bit more information, we ask one more time, we provide more facts and more figures and more reasons and more threats or more rewards, they’ll come about. And it makes sense why we think that, right? If there’s a chair in a room and we want to get that chair to move, pushing is often a great way to get it to move, right? If we push that chair in a particular direction, it often goes in that particular direction. But when it comes to people, there is one problem, which is that people aren’t like chairs. We push chairs, they go in that direction, we compel them, we push them that way. But when we push people, they often don’t just go along. They often push back. So what I wondered is, could there be a different approach?
And as you brought up, indeed there is and it actually comes from chemistry, and so think back, as you mentioned, just sort of your biochemistry, your old chemistry days, think back to most of us took chemistry in high school, we might remember that change in chemistry takes even longer than change does in the social world, right? It often takes thousands, if not millions of years for plant matter to change into oil or carbon to change into diamonds. It takes a lot of temperature and pressure. So chemists and others who want change to happen in the chemical world often use a special set of substances to get change to happen faster and easier. These substances do everything from cleaning contact lenses to the grime on cars, they do even things like help turn petroleum into… It’s an amazing set of substances that have won multiple Nobel prizes, but what’s most interesting about these substances is the way they generate change. They don’t add temperature or pressure.
Usually in chemistry, think about a popcorn kernel. You have a kernel of popcorn sitting in front of you on the counter, it doesn’t just turn into popcorn. You have to heat it or add pressure to it to get it to go. Usually that’s what we do in chemistry, but these special substances don’t need more temperature or more pressure. They actually find an alternate way to create change. What they do is they don’t up the pressure, they don’t up the temperature. They reduce the barriers to change. They allow the same amount of change to happen with less pressure or less pushing. That’s exactly what catalysts do, both in the social world and the chemical world. They don’t push harder, they figure out what are those barriers preventing change, and how we could mitigate them. So that at the core is what this book is all about. Not how we can push people harder, not how we can give our kids one more reason or threaten them, “Oh, if you don’t clean up, you’re not going to get your dessert!” But how can we figure out what are those barriers that are preventing change and how we could mitigate them. Why hasn’t that person changed already, and how by understanding why they haven’t can I make change faster and often easier?
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And you talk about five specific ways that people can be a catalyst for change. I want to go with this idea of pushing a bit more, because I know that every parent listening, probably any adult listening can relate to this, right? We have this idea that if we just push, if we give more reasons, more explanations, more rewards and consequences, more of this external sort of force that we can get kids to think about things in the way we want them to, or to do things the way we want them to, but often that does backfire and anybody who is raising a preteen or a teen or even a toddler right now can attest to that, right? It’s like the more we push, the more they push back and the more frustrated we all get. So what is the better way to think about that?
So first, let’s unpack why that happens. A little bit of the psychology of why that happens. So as you mentioned, there are five key barriers I talk about in the book. They actually together spell a word which is ‘REDUCE’. So the R is reactance, the E is endowment, D is distance, U is uncertainty and CE is corroborating evidence. Each of these are one of the key barriers that often prevent change. And what you’re talking about right now is reactance. The idea behind reactance is very simple. People like to feel — whether we’re talking about kids as people, whether we’re talking about spouses as people, whether we’re talking about your boss as people. People like to feel like they are in the driver seat of their lives. They like to feel like they have freedom and autonomy and they have chosen things because they like those things, because those things are what they want to do.
But unfortunately, when we try to ask them to do something or pressure them to do something, or try to persuade them to do something, it impinges on that belief to feel like they’re in control of their destiny. So whether it’s your child who doesn’t want to clean up the room, whether it’s the spouse who doesn’t want to clean the dishes or whether it’s your brother or sister-in-law who’s not listening to a thing that you suggested that they do, when you suggest something, it’s coming from you, it’s not coming from them. So it makes it feel like they’re no longer in control. A good way to think about it is, people having a sense of an anti-persuasion radar. It’s almost like an anti-missile defense system or kind of a spidey sense that goes off when people are trying to persuade them.
Think about your own life when you get an email from a salesperson or an ad comes on the television, you switch the channel, right? When someone tries to persuade us we either avoid or ignore that message, right? Your kid might run to the other room yelling or sort of pretend they don’t hear you. Or even worse, they sit there and they counter argue. They think about all the reasons why what you’re suggesting is wrong. So this often happens with spouses, let’s say, similarly, your spouse says, “Hey, what do you want to do this weekend?” You say, “Oh, let’s go see a movie!” And they’re not just sitting there going, “Oh that sounds like a great idea, they’re thinking, “Well, it’s nice outside, why don’t we do something outside? We already saw a movie last week.” They’re thinking about all the reasons why what you suggested is wrong. So that’s really the challenge, right? When we push people, they don’t just go along.
So what we have to do is figure out a way to allow for autonomy. To allow them to feel like they’re free or they’re in control of their choices. So let’s take that spouse for a second. Rather than saying, “Hey, let’s go to the movies!” A simple suggestion people often use is to give people what are called guided choices. Not just one option but a couple. So rather than saying, “Hey! We can go to the movies!” Say, “Hey, we can go to the movies or we can have chinese food.” And what that suddenly does is that shifts the role of the listener. Rather than sitting there and going and thinking about all the reasons they don’t like what they suggested, they’re thinking about which of the two options you’ve suggested is better for them. Which one they prefer. Which means they’re much more likely to pick one of those at the end of the day and so the same thing is true with kids.
I, as you know, as you mentioned, I’m a parent of a two and a half year old. He’s a wonderful boy. He listens sometimes, but not all the time. And you know, when you ask him, “Hey, put on your pants,” he thinks about all the reasons why he doesn’t want to put on his pants, what he’d prefer to do. but if instead you say, “Hey, which do you want to put on first? Your pants or your shirt?” “Which shirt do you want to wear? This shirt or that shirt?” What you’re doing there is you’re giving him some choice. You’re not giving an infinite number of choices, it’s guided choice. It’s a small set of options that sort of shape that path to encourage people to go in a particular direction. So you’re giving them choice, so they feel like they have freedom and control, but not all the choice in the world.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, because all the choices in the world can be incredibly overwhelming, particularly for kids. So that idea of putting some guideposts around that, but I know this is so critical because many of the parents listening have children who have some type of developmental, mental health challenges, behavioral types of issues. Some kids have a heightened sensitivity to feeling like an adult or somebody is trying to push or control them, right? I mean all kids, I think have that to some extent. But some kids really tend to hone in on that very quickly and the second they feel like something is coming at them, somebody is trying to get them to do something in a certain way, they get on what I call that hamster wheel of negotiating and arguing, exactly what you said, like coming up with all the reasons why they’re not going to or they shouldn’t have to, even if fundamentally they don’t have a problem with what they were asked to do in the first place, right?
If they came up with it, they would have been fine doing it, but you came up with it.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
So that idea of instead pushing, pushing, looking at how you can remove the obstacles to this, how we can provide some choices here so that they still feel like they are coming up with the idea or having autonomy or a say in the process, I think that alone can reduce such a significant percentage of the frustration that comes up between parents and kids throughout the day.
Yeah, I mean it’s funny. I was excited about talking to you today, and someone actually just yesterday emailed me another great example of the same — I talk about four solutions in the book. One is the sort of providing a menu of guided choices, another one I talk a lot about is “Ask, don’t tell.” So rather than tell people to do something, ask a question, because what it gets other people, it gets them to commit to the conclusion. When they came up with the idea, you ask someone. It helps communication. People often say, “Don’t drink and drive, don’t smoke, don’t text and drive.” If instead, they said, “Hey, what are the consequences of smoking for your health?” People are much more involved themselves.
And the same idea works with kids. They were sharing this great example of — their kid spilled milk, right? And usually as a parent, what you do with this is, “Oh, why did you spill the milk! Oh, go clean it up.”, to which the kid gets defensive, right? And says, “I don’t want to clean it up, I don’t want to do what you told me.” But instead, you can say, “What should we do? The milk’s spilled, what should we do?” First of all, the kid is sitting there going, oh, you’re not yelling at me, which is really nice, but also now, I’m involved. Now, I have to think about what the right thing is to do about the milk, and again, you give them some guidance, you don’t let them go in any direction, you don’t ask any question at all. But what do we do when we spill milk? Asking the right question gets them to go, “Oh, we should clean it up.” When they come up with that solution themselves, it’s really hard then when you say, “Okay, well, what should we clean it up with?” “A paper towel” “Okay, well help me, go get a paper towel.” It’s much harder for them to say no, because they came up with it.
This is true in a variety of contexts. I talk in the book about a boss who is trying to get their employees to work later, to work late on the weekends and all those things, of course people don’t want to do that. So instead, he has a meeting, he says, “What kind of company do you want to be in, a good company or a great company?” We all know how people answer that question, they say “We want to be a great company.” “What do we need to do to be a great company?” People brainstorm ideas, people say, “Oh, we probably need to work harder.” Then he says, okay, now you came up with this idea, it’s harder to back away from doing it later on.
And so that asking, rather than telling is a great way to allow people to participate, feel like they have more control and make them more bought into the solution.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, that’s a really practical strategy that parents can use as well. I’m thinking of even examples with extended family members, partners, things like that. If they buy in, help them come up with some of the ideas and then right, it’s a lot harder to say no. I love that. You were talking about some example from the book and you touched on some health related things and I think this particularly comes up as our children start to get older into those preteen years and teen years and we’re trying to educate them and get them on board with making positive choices in their lives, that kind of stuff. You give some good examples in the book about how a lot of the well-intentioned things that companies or adults will say actually influence kids’ behavior or people’s behavior in the opposite direction. What are some of the things that we should be mindful of as parents that are not effective to do, when it comes to wanting to get our kids on board, whether it’s avoiding illicit substance use or getting into inappropriate kinds of interactions with people online, what are some things that we might have a tendency to do that we should not do?
It’s funny. I tell this too in the book, the Tide Pod challenge, which some of your listeners may remember, right? It’s this thing we’re — everyone remembers Tide Pods, these things go in the laundry so you don’t have to measure out your detergent. They are just a little pod you stick in the grate, they’re very effective, but a few years ago, there was this problem, which is people were eating them. And so teens would challenge each other online, they’d eat Tide Pods, there were some funny videos about it, and so this thing kind of caught a little bit of fire online. And what did Tide do? They did what any company would do, right? They said “Don’t do it!” They hired celebrities to tell people not to do it, and then all hell broke loose, right? Rather than being less likely to do it, the exact opposite happened. Suddenly, interest in Tide Pods shot up online, suddenly visits to poison control went up as well. And the challenges and warnings often become recommendations. Particularly for teens, for people that are trying to separate themselves from their parents and trying to define their own identity, part of how we define that identity is to be different from other people, to be separate from our parents. I followed them for 10, maybe even 15 years, now part of the way I express my own identity is not doing what they say. By the way, this applies to teenagers, it also applies to spouses and bosses, it’s the same idea, right?
Everyone has this drive when someone tells them not to do something, to push back. So I think the first thing is: Don’t tell people not to do something. Tell people not to do something often makes it more alluring, whether that person is someone to date, whether that person is eating a Tide Pod, suddenly someone will go, “Well, huh, why are you telling me not to do this? This thing must be interesting. Maybe I’ll check it out, maybe it’s a way to get your attention, maybe it’s a way to define my own identity.
So definitely don’t say, “No, don’t do this.” I find often with our toddler, he’s not thinking about something, not talking about it is a great way to get him to ignore it. And if you’ve got a teenager, they’re starting to think about these things. You can’t completely ignore it, but again, asking questions can be kind of a great way to set up that discussion and to allow them to participate. Also even saying, “Would you recommend this for someone else?” So I talk about it in the book, this strategy called highlighting a gap, which is basically pointing out a gap between what people’s attitudes are and their actions, and so often some of those people do things themselves that they wouldn’t recommend for others.
There was a great video I talk about in the book, in Thailand, where they want to get people to quit smoking. So rather than telling them to quit smoking, they have kids walk up to them and say, “Hey, can I have a light?” Now obviously, if you’re a smoker, you would not light a kid’s cigarette. You’d tell that kid what a bad idea it is. All the smokers do that, they tell them why they shouldn’t smoke, and at the end, the kid says, “Okay, well why are you smoking?” And what that does is, it says, “Hey, well you’re telling me not to do this, not to do this, why would you do it yourself? So think about the same thing with your teenager saying, “Hey, would you recommend your friends? What would you recommend to your friend? Would you recommend that they did this particular thing?” And if they wouldn’t recommend it for a friend, that’s kind of encouraging them to go, “Wait, maybe I shouldn’t do it myself. So again, rather than telling them, rather than telling them what not to do, forcing them one way, using question and allowing them to come up with those ideas themselves as a guide in that journey, leveraging cognitive dissonance, encouraging them to kind of come up with it themselves will make them much more likely to do what we want them to.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and that really makes me think about the importance of us as parents and adults in modeling the kinds of things that we want kids to do, right? That’s just — you talked about highlighting a gap, right? And I say this to parents all the time, it’s like with kids, it can not be, “Do as I say, not as I do,” Because they are watching and picking up, even little, little ones are hearing and watching and noticing and whether it’s trying to get them into healthier digital device habits or about substance use or eating their vegetables or whatever, they’re going to default to the model that they see us providing, so I’m thinking about that, highlighting the gap for ourselves too, of noticing maybe where we aren’t in full integrity with what it is that we’re trying to push our kids to do.
Certainly, I, unfortunately, have some friends whose child has a substance abuse problem and part of how they got that problem was seeing their parents use some of those substances at home. The parents don’t have an abuse problem, but they’ve used it from time to time and the kids saw that and they sort of say, “Okay, if mom and dad are doing it, it must be okay.” Same thing with digital devices, right? Certainly, it’s really easy to say, “Well, I don’t want my kids to be doing that”, but if they see you doing that, if they see you peeking under the dinner table, looking at your thing or you’re at soccer practice but not paying attention, you’re on your phone, why wouldn’t they think then that that’s okay for them to as well? So it’s really hard sometimes because you say well, “Hold on, I’m not my kid. ” I shouldn’t have to do everything they do! They’re 12, 14, 18 whatever it is and I’m 45, I should be able to do what I want to do.” That’s fine, but then you have to say — if they’re going to see you doing it, you have to be okay with them wanting to do it as well, or maybe think about, how can I do it in a way that they’re less likely to see it, or it’s kind of less invasive in their lives, because I think it’s as you nicely said, if you’re not living it yourself, it’s hard to tell someone else to do it.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Absolutely, and this is where I think parents sometimes get into frustration with each other in relation to the kids, right? A mom and a dad or whatever the situation is, two parents on somewhat different pages, and I see this come up a lot in my work around, a parent who maybe wants to work on some health-related changes for the child or the family, right? Getting the child to eat healthier foods or to not bring so much sugar in the house or things like that, and they’re like, “But my partner is eating hohos and drinking coke all the time,” and so there’s this sense of, “Okay, I know I need to get my partner to buy into this, we need to provide a model for the child.” But these are the real ways that this stuff shows up right? And I think a lot of what you’re talking about, and this is why I was so excited to share this book with people because often the way that we go about trying to convince or push our partner to get on the same page with us in relation to the family to our kids, really backfires and then that makes everything worse.
Oh yeah, we have this — I wouldn’t say ‘issue’ because ‘issue’ is strong, but in our house, I’m not big on desserts, my wife is bigger on desserts, we want to raise our sun to not be super keen on deserts, but we often have conversations about what the best way to manage that. So I certainly think it’s not only you and the child, it’s you and your spouse as well. One example I talk about in the book, is sometimes when we ask for too much, this idea of distance, when we ask people to completely not eat any sweets, that person is going to say no, right? That’s very different from where they are ready, so you often kind of have to ask for less and then ask for more. Maybe say, “Hey, you can have them one night a week, rather than five nights a week,” Or “Can you have them after our son or daughter goes to sleep?”, rather than something else. Not asking for a huge change but kind of breaking that big change. I talk about chunking the change, breaking that big change up into smaller chunks. I tell the story about a doctor whose tying to get a trucker to quit drinking soda and the guy was drinking like three liters of Mountain Dew a day, was hugely obese. The doctor in that situation will say, “Don’t drink any soda.” What’s someone going to say when you tell them not to drink any soda? “Screw you, I’ll do whatever I want!” Right? So instead she said, “Okay, so you can still drink soda, just drink two liters rather than three, fill the third one up with water.” He grumbled, but after a month or so, he was able, came back, she said, “Okay, now go from two to one.” Grumbled but was able to do that. “Now, go from one to zero.”
Eventually, they guy lost over 25 pounds. It took a little longer, but it’s much more realistic. When we ask for so much, there’s a tendency to discount or ignore it. But by chunking that change up, it makes it more manageable and makes it more likely to happen.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah. So important to think about with kids and adults, because the reality is, a lot of the time the push back against change is about the change itself, the anxiety, the uncertainty that that brings up and the bigger the jump that feels like, the scarier it feels and the more we go nope, I’m going to stay right over here, thanks. So I love that idea of approaching it in chunks, in pieces and if you’re struggling to get your partner on the same page or your child on the same page to find maybe even a small entry point that you can have some agreement on and it might be a slower process, but it’s still going to be quicker on the long run than staying at a stalemate and not having any forward progress.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah. Such practical, great tips. I really hope that this has encouraged people to want to check your work out more because it really is just a fantastic book that has so many applications to our relationships, our home lives, our work lives. Tell everybody where they can get the book and where they can find out more about you.
Yeah, sure. So the book is available wherever books are sold, so Amazon, Audible, Barnes and Noble, wherever you get your books. You can find me at jonahberger.com, I’m at j1berger on Twitter and on LinkedIn and other social platforms as well. Oh, and sorry, I should mention — If folks are interested, there are also some resources on my website. So free workbooks and one-pagers sort of if you’re not sure about the book yet or you want to learn a little more, some tools that you can download before you go for the whole book.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and also, those compliment the book nicely, I was looking at those and they give people even just some takeaway points and easy things to have to implement. So just really want to encourage everybody to check out the book Catalyst, it’s a fantastic resource, check out Jonah’s website and resources, we’ll have all those links in the show notes. Jonah, can’t thank you enough for being here with use today, such a great conversation and thank you so much.
Well, thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And thanks to all of you for listening, we’ll see you next time for the next episode of The Better Behavior Show.