A Taxonomy of Barriers to Change

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brick wall with 'children' shaped as the bricks climbing over and around it

Image from Donna Perugini

One of the perpetual frustrations of change agents is encountering barriers to audiences ‘receiving’ a message, and/or effecting a change in behaviour.

Previously I talked about just one of many potential barriers – the importance of the messenger, and why this can determine how effective the message is.

Understanding the most common types of barriers and finding ways to address these is an essential part of any changemaker’s toolkit.

In the February issue of its magazine, UK based NGO Population Matters adapted a talk given by George Marshall of the Climate Outreach and Information Network.

Marshall had analysed responses to the climate-change message to help understand the barriers to its acceptance.

In the article, Population Matters CEO Simon Ross looks at how these same responses could be addressed in relation to population:

Risk – people respond best to threats that: are visible; have historical precedent; are immediate; have simple causality; are caused by another “tribe”; and have a direct personal impact. How do we best convey the risks caused by population size, which tend not to meet these criteria? Better, how do we endow our message with these characteristics?

Belief – people tend to believe things, not just on the facts, but when they suit their internal ethics, world view, social norms and behaviour. How do we reframe our message so that we avoid so contradicting people’s core beliefs that they reject it out of hand?

Attention – there are subjects of which people are aware but which it is not socially acceptable to discuss. This is also known as failing the “dinner party test”. These subjects are taboo, perhaps because they’re potentially distressing, or embarrassing, or controversial, or might challenge the audience’s behaviour.

Stories or interpretative narratives – the way we mediate information. What is the “story” or message of population growth about? It could be about resources, or the environment, or quality of life, or ageing, or gender equality, or poverty alleviation, or technological progress, or, less positively, national competition, immigration or political control. Of course, it’s to some extent about all of these things. Given this complexity and these very different possible narratives, how do we construct a coherent (it hangs together), convincing (it’s believable) and compelling (it makes people care) story?

Responsibilities – similarly, who should be doing something about population numbers? Possible answers include: women; men; wealthy countries; developing countries; the government; the UN; schools; teenage girls; even all of us. How do we construct a story that allocates responsibility for action in a way that is seen as appropriate?

Objections – reasons people give for rejecting our message. Examples: I do other environmentally friendly things; you have no right to tell me what to do; I’m not the main cause of the problem; I’ve done nothing wrong; I can’t make any difference on my own; it’s too difficult for me to change my reproductive behaviour/ speak out; society won’t accept change in its reproductive behaviour/ discussion on this; there are too many obstacles to changing reproductive behaviour. What can we say to counter these?

Distancing – some people will say that population is a problem that’s happening to someone else, or somewhere else, or that it’s buried in the past, or something for the future. How do we convince them that it’s important to them personally, here, and now?

Compartmentalising – some people will agree it’s a problem, and then ignore it with reference to their own behaviour. How do we persuade them to change their behaviour and what they say about population?

Positive framing – people may focus on perceived positive aspects of population growth. How do we ensure the downside is seen as more important?

Ethical offsets – people may say they’ve ‘done their bit’ by having only one or two children. How do we encourage them to do more?

Cynicism – people may decide to have more children before it becomes unfashionable. Can we persuade them to be responsible?

Agnosticism – people will say that the impact of population numbers is unproven. How do we convince them it’s real?

Denial – some will deny it’s a problem at all. How do we limit their influence?

This is not by any means a complete list of barriers change agents face in their work, and you may or may not agree with how Population Matters have adapted the original talk – for example, I would prefer to ask more questions about denial of a problem rather than seeking to limit such a group’s influence. However this ‘taxonomy of barriers’ offers a useful framework for many programs of change.

Furthermore, even presenting ‘facts’ differently to resonate with a range of audiences may not always be successful – in an article called ‘The Backfire Effect’, You Are Not So Smart (a blog and book about self-delusion and irrational thinking), noted the following:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Governments and people seeking to bring about change in any area, be it healthy diets, safe driving, climate change, have tended to operate on the basis that people will change their behaviour when presented with the facts, or when presented with the facts in a certain way. But check out this example cited in The Backfire Effect:

Geoffrey Munro at the University of California and Peter Ditto at Kent State University concocted a series of fake scientific studies in 1997. One set of studies said homosexuality was probably a mental illness. The other set suggested homosexuality was normal and natural. They then separated subjects into two groups; one group said they believed homosexuality was a mental illness and one did not. Each group then read the fake studies full of pretend facts and figures suggesting their worldview was wrong. On either side of the issue, after reading studies which did not support their beliefs, most people didn’t report an epiphany, a realization they’ve been wrong all these years. Instead, they said the issue was something science couldn’t understand. When asked about other topics later on, like spanking or astrology, these same people said they no longer trusted research to determine the truth. Rather than shed their belief and face facts, they rejected science altogether.

Sometimes facts and information, and presenting them in specific ways for specific audiences can work, but all too often the result is that people dig their heels in further and resist change. People tend to not want to let go of their attachment to beliefs for various reasons – like any habit, its easier to keep what we’ve got than spend the mental energy working through something new; people may feel like being open to a new idea makes them ‘wrong’, which runs counter to what we’ve been taught all through our educational system – that being right equals success, cleverness, and self-esteem.

We’re trying to tackle change through the head (reasoning, rationale) when what we need to shift is the heart (emotional attachments, beliefs). The example cited above was followed in the article by a quote from Sir Francis Bacon on the same issue – that people will throw out what does not ‘fit’ with their worldview, regardless of the evidence. In this situation, science does not matter. Facts cannot convince.

Bacon’s quote is from over four hundred years ago, we’ve known this for a long time! It is not new.

Perhaps we, as those who seek to change habits, must change our own – the habit of the manner in which we communicate?

Could this ‘taxonomy’ help address some aspects of your communications or change challengeAre there any important barriers that you have come across which should be part of a list of barriers?

Have you ever experienced a wholesale rejection of a communications approach and wondered why it didn’t work?

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