Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard [Book Review]

I realize I’ve been stepping out of the usual bounds the last few months, which may put off some people. I promise all my talk about psychology and cognitive science does have a point, and is most assuredly related to goal-achievement in athletic activities (which includes successful eating strategies).

It isn’t that I think training discussion is exhausted. The theoretical side has distilled to nitpicking over details that don’t matter. It’s interesting in the way reading about quantum physics is interesting; a good time-waster, if you’re in the hands of a Hawking or Kaku or Brian Greene, but most of the readership really doesn’t get it. The concepts and the mathematics are too obscure; to make the material accessible, it has to be sloganized. Transforming nuanced concepts into one-off sound-bites is the origin of Bro-Science, so I think that’s best avoided.

The Just Go Do It discussion doesn’t involve much more than asking how you like to work out, or finding novel ways to come up with numbers to lift. You can make that as complex, or simple, as you please.

But the mind, now there’s an untapped area. Think past the classics like ‘mind-muscle connection’ and the motivational one-liners reminding you that ‘mind is everything’. It is, without a doubt — and like all uselessly vague clich├ęs, it tells you absolutely nothing of value.

Cognitive science and neurochemistry, psychoneuroimmunology and behavioral psych, those are areas worth investigating. The mind acts in (somewhat) predictable ways, and more importantly, this behavior can be quantified, analyzed, and linked to physical activity in the body. We can measure this and explain what happens.

Knowing how our thoughts and emotions are shaped by our behaviors, by other people’s behaviors, and by the myriad environmental variables we encounter at every moment sheds light on why we succeed — or fail.

If you don’t go to the gym because you don’t feel like it, that’s affecting you. If you don’t stay on your diet because you’re craving cake, that’s affecting you. If you don’t believe in the program you’re doing and half-ass it, that affects you.

The psychological elements of exercise and nutrition are the most important elements. They’re so important, so fundamental, that we take them for granted. When’s the last time you felt tired from a workout? When’s the last time you showed up and went through the motions? Did you ask yourself why that happened, try to get down to the bottom of it and see how to fix it or avoid it next time?

Or did you not give it a second thought?

Behaviors are neurological and habitual. Behaviors are influenced by the environment. And that’s where Switch, by authors Chip and Dan Heath, kicks off.

The book leads in with a very relevant experiment: movie-goers are given free buckets of popcorn in exchange for their participation in a short survey after the film. Unknown to the participants, some were given medium-sized buckets, while others were given the ultra-mammoth size. The results were amazing — people with the large buckets ate 53% more popcorn than those with the medium size.

Even better, the folks in the large-bucket group didn’t even realize they’d done it. They rationalized the overeating, claiming they don’t get fooled by Jedi trickery such as that.

(This was a real study performed by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating. You can find the study, and much more on the subject, courtesy of Pubmed)

People overeat without realizing it, and, after the fact, tell themselves they’re above such behavior. Mindless behavior, and rationalizations for it, are a core premise of Switch. This isn’t just limited to food; we behave like this in any situation that involves decision-making.

It’s almost like people have two minds. One part of us is rational, thoughtful, analytical. The other wants to sleep through the alarm, eat cheeseburgers, and smoke cigarettes all day long. The Heath brothers draw on an analogy from psychologist Johnathan Haidt (from his book The Happiness Hypothesis) to label these ‘different brains’: the emotional side is an Elephant, while the rational brain is the Rider.

The Rider appears to be in control. He’s got the reins, and he’s clearly the one heading up the operation. On paper, at least. In practice, the pachydermic monstrosity is going to do what it wants and no little human is going to have any say in the matter. This is an elegant metaphor recurring throughout the book.

Fortunately the Heaths don’t stop by telling you that you’re a broken schizophrenic with no hope of change. The remainder of the book deals with various real-life scenarios and research, pointing out the weaknesses in the Rider (over-analysis) and the Elephant (lack of motivation or desire). A full third of the book discusses the Path, or the environment, and how that impacts our ability to change — as with the difference in large vs. medium popcorn buckets.

The book concludes with a simple (and I foresee very useful) flowchart summing up their three-step process for stimulating a difficult change, and a brief Q&A covering individual circumstances.

I found this to be a very useful and easy to follow book. I like how they managed to get right at the heart of our built-in neuroses and flesh out a step-by-step method for working with, or at least around, most of them. A key theme is that change doesn’t have to be huge and daunting; often, it’s one small change that will have a major effect. The goal is not massive change — at least at first — but the right change to get results, and then set off a snowball effect.

They never claim magical life-changing effects; indeed they acknowledge that any change will be difficult. What you find here is a toolkit that can streamline the process and smooth out the lumps.

There are online goodies which can be found at www.switchthebook.com, including some downloadable PDFs and podcasts which I’ve not listened to yet.

While this book skews towards organizational change, change within monolithic, resistant bureaucracies, or any situation where the goal seems unmanageably daunting, it’s not hard to see how this would apply to any major lifestyle change — like competing in a sport, or just making the shift away from being a junk-fueled couch-monkey.

I found myself grinning through the parts dealing with the obliviousness of eating habits, given the current trend of Not My Fault and Diets Don’t Work thinking. There are droves of people who have convinced themselves that they don’t overeat, that they’ll be miserable if they diet; and yet there’s so much evidence that their problem is situational — having too much access to easy, tasty calories and no idea of how much they actually eat.

Ironically enough, the Low Carb Magic that so many have adopted exemplifies the concept of a situational solution. When you jack up protein and fats while cutting back carbs, you make it that much harder to overeat, so you wind up with a diet that self-regulates far better than the alternatives. By making a small change, you make the whole process easier.

I found Switch to be a compelling book, a good summation of behavioral psychology, and worth picking up.

2 thoughts on “Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard [Book Review]”

  1. The book leads in with a very relevant experiment: movie-goers are given free buckets of popcorn in exchange for their participation in a short survey after the film. Unknown to the participants, some were given medium-sized buckets, while others were given the ultra-mammoth size. The results were amazing — people with the large buckets 53% more popcorn than those with the medium size.

    The results were amazing — people with the large buckets ATE 53% more popcorn than those with the medium size.

    Nice one matt

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