Why we resist change and what to do about it

Something I often wonder about when it comes to climate action but also just people in general is: why are we so resistant to change?

Faced with copious amounts of irrefutable evidence, many people are still unwilling to adjust their lifestyles in environmentally friendly ways. Some even doggedly deny the veracity of the crisis entirely. Why?

As the old adage goes, humans are creatures of habit. We feel comfortable and safe in our routines and familiar ways of doing things. Change is antithetical to routine. And breaking a habit is notoriously difficult to do. With change comes uncertainty and discomfort. Even something as seemingly insignificant as switching your normal brand of shampoo, taking a different route home, or cooking with a new unfamiliar spice can feel a bit uncomfortable. It can be exciting to try something new, but often it is a bit scary — maybe more than we’d like to admit.

Messing with the formula

When it comes to changes that we have not personally chosen but that are forced upon us, such as changes in the workplace, we tend to be even more resistant. It can feel like a loss of autonomy or control. We may doubt whether it is necessary to make the change, whether it will be more effective, whether it will be worth the effort. We might also be secretly worried that we won’t be able to adjust or keep up, that we will become redundant or fall behind. When we have done something in one specific way for so long, messing with that formula does not come naturally.

Another important factor in human resistance to change is that our behaviour is guided by cultures and traditions, many of which have remained unchanged for centuries. They are constants that guide us and that we can rely on. When we structure our lives according to tradition it takes some of the guess work out of it, gives us a sense of belonging and security. Individuals do not exist in a vacuum but within communities; changing our behaviour might not only be uncomfortable for us personally but can go against the grain of the norms of the society and community we live in, making it especially difficult to do. Imagine telling your mum that if she added a different sauce to her famous lasagne, a recipe passed down over generations, it would improve the final product. This is unlikely to go down well, even if it would actually improve the recipe. If you went to the same school as your father, who went to the same school as his father before him and so on, it will be particularly difficult to send your child to a different school, whether or not your alma mater is actually a good fit for your them.

The first obstacle – climate denial

When it comes to making climate-related changes, the first and most glaring obstacle has of course been climate denial, which is perhaps a story for another day. There are numerous causes for this (frankly bizarre) phenomenon but I think one of the most relevant is one that former US Vice President, Al Gore, identified all the way back in 2006 in his landmark documentary. To believe in climate change and to believe that it is caused by human activity is to acknowledge a very inconvenient truth. Becoming a green citizen, adjusting your life so as to reduce your carbon footprint is inconvenient. It takes effort and time and energy. It can be uncomfortable, difficult, and downright cumbersome. Both psychologically and in practice.

Think longterm

Deciding to change your lifestyle for the good of the planet requires thinking long-term rather than short-term, something which we are all notoriously bad at doing; we tend to over-value the short-term and under-value the long-term. Many of us believe the climate science and are genuinely concerned about the future of the planet but still struggle to make the necessary changes to our lives because we are too busy giving our energy to more immediate concerns. Studies in psychology have shown that abstract concepts and threats are bad motivators for change. We are far more likely to address an imminent threat that will effect us directly than one which may effect us far in the future or which effects people continents away from us. That’s not to say we are heartless; we may be devastated about climate catastrophes like tsunamis or droughts that impact other people, but they are far away and we don’t always see an immediate connection between our actions and those consequences.

In practice, overhauling our lives to make them earth-friendly can feel like a completely overwhelming task, not to mention expensive and time-consuming. Figuring out a recycling system is stressful enough, let alone installing solar power. What does eco-bricking even mean and how do you do it? Should you be getting a water-saving toilet? On top of our already stressful day to day lives, taking on these tasks feels mammoth, especially if we’re not fully convinced they’ll really make a difference.

Stay informed

So what do we do? How do we convince ourselves and others to stop resisting and start changing?  A good starting point is to try keep things in perspective. While the actual effects of climate change may feel distant and abstract, in reality they are staring us in the face. By staying up to date with climate science and news, we are less likely to let the climate problem slip into the periphery of our focus. There is a fine line between staying cognisant and falling into full-blown climate grief, however, and that line is different for everybody. Each of us needs to find that balance for ourselves. We should keep informed to maintain our motivation, not fall into despair.

Do research

With regards to practical changes, it’s important to do your research. When you make a change, try to do research into how and how much it will help. If you know that the actions you take will make a small but not insignificant difference, it is easier to stick to them. Start with a few minor adjustments. You can’t do it all at once. For example, we know that the production of meat generates a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions but the idea of going fully vegan may feel like biting off more than you can chew.

Start small

So start small. Try doing meat-free Mondays or commit to having plant-based breakfasts. Make this easier for yourself by doing meat-free meals you actually enjoy and that don’t feel like a punishment. You don’t have to have a kale salad. You can do a pesto pasta or a hearty curry. Once you’ve identified a small manageable change you want to make, understood why it is important, and figured out how you can make it work for you, it will be far easier to stick to.

Changing is hard. It requires effort, it feels unnatural, it makes us uncomfortable. But it’s essential for progress and growth. Things that are worthwhile are rarely easy. And doing our bit to help our planet is infinitely worthwhile.

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