Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard – Book Review + Notes

We all think that we want to make some big changes in our lives, our communities, and possibly even in our workplaces.

If this is true, then why is change so difficult to achieve? And why do so few of us succeed at it?

In Switch, brothers Chip and Dan dive deep into psychological analysis and engaging case studies to find out exactly why lasting change is so elusive, and their answer might surprise you.

Through research and careful analysis, they conclude that the primary obstacle towards change is conflict within our brains between our rational side and our emotional side. While the rational brain is interested in long term progress, the emotional brain is interested in instant gratification and has the ability to undo our best efforts of resolve. By using the metaphor of a rider astride an elephant, the Health brothers show how precarious, yet necessary, it is for our brains to be able to control these two sides and keep them in balance with each other.

Though the tension between these two spheres might doom you to the status quo, learning how they interact with one another can help you to overcome them and create the change you want to see in your life.

Within their compelling case studies, Chip and Dan are ready to show you how to master your own brain and start to create the changes you only dreamed were possible.

Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath


Here’s what you’ll learn about in my book review for this book:

– The ways that the rational mind, emotional mind, and situation you are in all interact together in decision making, for better or for worse.

– Ways to find the ‘bright spots’ of behavior that can provide hope for making changes to the entire system.

– The ways that you can “grow your people” in order to amass support for the change you want to make.

– The ways that you can make difficult changes easier for people to make by scripting the critical moments and shrinking the necessary change that they are responsible for.

Some interesting Quotes from the book:

  • This is a book to help you change things. We consider change at every level— individual, organizational, and societal.
  • Self-control is an exhaustible resource. This is a crucial realization, because when we talk about “selfcontrol,” we don’t mean the narrow sense of the word, as in the willpower needed to fight vice (smokes, cookies, alcohol).
  • To change behavior, you’ve got to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path. If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can happen even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.
  • Lasting change happens when you can effectively direct both the rational and emotional spheres of the mind.

1. Three Surprising Truths About Change

In a classic behavioral study, movie-goers were given buckets of popcorn of variable size. In every case, it was more popcorn that could be eaten by one person, and the popcorn was made to intentionally taste terrible. The goal of the study was to see whether the size of the container would affect how much moviegoers ate, and when researchers weighed the buckets at the end of the movie they found that people with larger ones had eaten more popcorn, simply because the size of the bucket made eating more seem necessary.

In this instance, the situation was affecting the behavior of the participants. Yet, think how often we believe that the reverse is true; we often assume people will eat more popcorn because they are fat or greedy, not because of the size of their bucket. This illustrates an important rule about change: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

In order for change to occur, you must deal with it from three perspectives: the emotional mind, the rational mind, and the situation itself. To illustrate this point, Chip and Dan rely on the metaphor of a man leading an elephant along a narrow path.

Direct the rational mind (the rider). Often times what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. For change to happen, we need to have a clear understanding of the facts.

Motivate the emotional mind (the elephant). The rational mind gets exhausted quickly, so to achieve success you will need to appeal to emotions. Powerful visuals, clear incentive, and comparisons to those around them can do wonders for motivating the emotional side of people.

Shape the surrounding environment (the path). As we mentioned earlier, what often looks like a people problem is actually a situational problem. What small changes can be made to influence the behavior of the elephant and rider towards the change that you want to see?

Part 1: Direct the Rider

2. Find the Bright Spots

“By looking for bright spots within the very village he was trying to change, Sternin ensured that the solution would be a native one.”

When looking at ways to solve a difficult problem, our natural inclination is to be overwhelmed with all the reasons why our desired changes won’t work. To illustrate this point, the authors tell us about Jerry Sternin, who was given six months to turn around childhood malnutrition in Vietnam—not to alleviate childhood malnutrition, not to make it a little better, but to totally (or at least mostly) eradicate childhood malnutrition in Vietnam. And he had six months to do it.

The scope of this challenge was big enough to prevent most folks from even trying. But Jerry decided to find small examples of the progress he wanted to make and see what was being done to accomplish them. In other words: he wanted to see if there was anything that was already working. And if there was, he wanted to replicate those results across the entire country.

In essence, he looked for “bright spots” of healthy kids within communities suffering from widespread malnutrition. This lead him to realize that some women were adding nutrient-rich plants and seafood to their children’s rice, giving them some much-needed protein and vitamins. By focusing on this bright spot, he was able to encourage other women to follow this method, and malnutrition quickly went down.

The problem was too massive to look at all at once. For most people, a big problem like malnutrition seems to necessitate a big solution like alleviating poverty, fixing the government or building infrastructure. However, Jerry managed to find a simple solution that was very effective just by seeking out what was already working in the community.

The key takeaway with this big idea is this: when you’re dealing with a major issue, always be on the lookout for “bright spots” (small examples of what’s already working), and then think about how you might be able to use or apply those bright spots either on a wider scale or within a specific area of your own life.

3. Script the Critical Moments

“The status quo feels comfortable and steady because much of the choice has been squeezed out.”

Decision paralysis is a common problem in our modern lives. Having more options to choose from, even if they are all good, will often freeze us out from making a decision and instead turn us towards our default behavior without making any sort of lasting change. This is why workers are more likely to sign up for their companies 401(k) plan if there are fewer than 10 options available.

Change agents can better create the changes that they want to see if they script the movements before the change decision. Think of Amazon’s “one click ordering” process in contrast to something as difficult to comprehend as the current food pyramid. For an example, an employer could make signing up for a 401(k) plan the default, and require employees to opt out if they don’t want to be involved. They could also provide fewer options so that their employees don’t get bogged down in the details.

By making the steps towards progress easy to see and understand, you will make it much easier for those around you to make changes.

Part 2: Motivate the Elephant

4. Shrink the Change

A recent study revealed that hotel maids who were told that their jobs make them moderate exercisers ended up losing more weight over time than maids that did the exact same work but weren’t told about the potential exercise benefits. Why is this? Simply because when the maids found out that they were already exercising it was easy to go a little farther with it; skipping the elevator in favor of the stairs or walking around the rooms they were cleaning a little more. Because the maids felt that they were already on their way towards accomplishing the goal of daily exercise, they were easily motivated (relatively unconsciously!) to take it one step farther.

Chip and Dan identify this phenomenon as “shrinking the change.” Making big changes can be incredibly daunting, which is why we all find it easier to make important changes in our lives when we feel that we are already on the path towards success.

Though it might be a business cliché to speak of “raising the bar”, in actuality you want to do the opposite in order to motivate the emotional elephant. “Lowering the bar” makes the task seem more manageable and allows the mind to not be overwhelmed by it.

It’s best to choose a series of small wins that are both meaningful and within immediate reach. The success of achieving them will encourage people to continue pushing forward towards bigger goals that suddenly don’t seem as overwhelming.

One of the best ways to motivate action is to make people feel that they are already closer to accomplishing their goal than they thought.

5. Grow Your People

“Identity is going to play a role in nearly every change situation. Even yours.”

Sometimes the goals of a project are so lofty that shrinking the change won’t be enough. In these cases, it is important to grow the network of people that are interested in achieving it. Saving endangered species is a perfect example of this type of thinking.

The island of St. Lucia had an endemic species of parrot that had been hunted to near extinction. Paul Butler, a recent college grad, landed his dream job on the island of working towards protecting this rare species.

Big thinking solutions would be to change or enforce laws on the island, which required power that Paul didn’t have. Instead, he needed to focus on small changes in the mindset of islanders to get them to appreciate their special parrot.

Butler started a publicity campaign, putting up pictures of the parrot and making flattering comparisons to the bald eagle. Soon, the people of St. Lucia began to take pride in their bird and see it as part of their national heritage. Poaching virtually stopped and the bird began to make a comeback.

Butler managed to achieve success not because he was able to change the situation around saving the parrot, but because he was able to motivate people to think differently about the bird itself. By getting them to identify with the bird as part of their national heritage, he managed to get them to take pride in saving it.

Lots of progress can happen when you get people to change their mindset, and it takes far less authority than changing laws.

Part 3: Shape the Path

6. Tweak the Environment

“Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder. It’s that simple.”

In part one, Chip and Dan looked at a study where participants that were given big buckets of popcorn ate more than those with smaller buckets, even when the popcorn was completely unappetizing. If you were to look at the data from this study without knowing that the bucket size varied between participants, it would be easy to assume that the people that ate more were naturally more greedy and gluttonous. In essence, it would be easy to ignore the situational forces (a bigger serving) that shaped their behavior and instead blame their own natural tendencies.

This phenomenon is extremely common and is called the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Essentially, it states that humans are quick to attribute other people’s behavior to the way they are, rather than the situation they are in.

However, just as switching the size of the popcorn container affected how much people mindlessly ate, making small changes to the environment can produce big results for getting the changes in behavior you are looking for. Making the path clear for the elephant (emotional mind) to travel allows the rider (rational mind) to expertly guide him along.

This change can manifest itself in hundreds of ways. Teachers might manage unruly classrooms by locking the door to their room once class starts; volunteer coordinators might give specific instructions for providing donations, or even go door to door to pick them up. Small changes in the environment can make a huge difference in other people’s receptiveness of the changes, and it can allow big changes to occur without much effort.

7. Rally the Herd

The group mentality can sometimes be a liability for instigating change. Though we all appreciate the opportunity to watch each other for behavioral cues during fancy dinners or big parties, studies have shown that a group of people are less likely to get involved when an emergency is occurring than one person on their own. Having multiple people around validates the decision to not do anything, because it is easier to continue to do what the group is doing than to stand out.

Though using the term ‘peer pressure’ may be overstating things, there is definitely a strong case of ‘peer perception’ that influences our behavior. The internal elephant is constantly checking in with those around to see how best to behave.

However, the opposite can also be true; when you manage to get enough people to make a change, others will quickly follow.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is the popularity of the phrase ‘designated driver’. The term didn’t even exist until the 1980s, when some savvy producers intentionally introduced it to popular media through radio broadcasts and television shows. The key to success was that little attention was drawn to the topic; rather it was treated like an understood societal norm and given less than five seconds on every show. Within a few years, the term was easily recognizable, and even more amazing, people were taking the advice to heart! Today, thousands of lives are saved from drunk driving accidents annually because it has become culturally normal to have a designated driver.

This story reveals how a little change in the group mentality (seeing designated drivers as a good social practice) prevented deaths from drunk driving and changed society’s perception of acceptable behavior.

8. Keep the Switch Going

“A long journey starts with a single step, but a single step doesn’t guarantee the long journey. How do you keep those steps coming?”

Animal trainers have a distinct way of training their wards. They rarely punish bad behavior, but instead reward any behavior that’s an incremental step towards the skill they are trying to train for. For instance, a monkey that is being trained to skateboard will get a treat even when he first gets close to it, and then whenever he decides to interact with it. This behavioral conditioning makes it easy for the monkey to slowly—but surely—make progress towards the desired behavior of using the skateboard.

In the same way, humans can be trained towards their goals with incremental steps. A focus on small steps breaks up the tedium of a long journey and keeps people motivated with victories along the way. The best part is that these changes seem to feed themselves. Small steps of progress build on each other in a snowball effect, and encourage more to be accomplished.

Thinking about change as a series of small steps makes it easier to start the process from where ever you are. It might be daunting to think about writing the book you’ve been dreaming about, but you can set aside half an hour to start writing it. Once you start writing, odds are good that half hour will naturally become longer and you will feel encouraged enough by your progress to start again tomorrow.

Little, consistent steps can go a long ways towards creating lasting change.

Important Takeaway from this Book:

– Complete change is hard, and few people are naturally good at it. When it comes to making longlasting
changes, the rational mind and the emotional mind are often in conflict with each other. By
understanding this tension, you can learn how to change the situation around you in order to make it
easier to make the changes you desire.

Action Checklist:

  • Change can come from anyone, at any level—regardless of title. In fact, sometimes the best, longest lasting changes come from everyday people like nurses and college graduates who are willing to look at the situation a little differently. If you want to make a change of any kind, don’t let your position become your barrier—take action (even if it’s something small at first).
  • In many cases, the situation is more to blame for poor results than the innate personality of the person responsible. (Trouble students aren’t “bad”). If you’re trying to make a change, remember that tweaking the situation/environment can have a major impact on the overall results.
  • One of the best ways to overcome a troubling problem is to seek out the bright spots—the instances where subtle changes in behavior are producing positive results; and then finding ways to emulate those (bright spots) on a wider scale.

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