An Educator’s Book Review: The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind

Those of us involved in trying to change schools to become learner-centered know how difficult that change can be to implement. I am always on the lookout for books and podcast episodes that help me understand the change process. I just completed reading the book The Catalyst by Jonah Berger. I found it very helpful (and valuable) as I think about leading change in schools. I have included a summary of the book. I wanted to make the summary specific for school leaders. Let me know in the comments if the book summary is helpful.

Title of Book: The Catalyst: How To Change Anyone’s Mind

Author of Book: Jonah Berger

Year Published: 2020

Chapter 1 Reactance

What is unique: Reactance is the first consideration when you want to change someone’s mind. Reactance is a psychological phenomenon that happens if people think their freedom is lost or threatened. Basically, telling someone not to do something makes them want to do that “something” more. People want to have a choice in their lives…or at least an illusion of choice. Even if what they choose is harmful to them, they are still happier because they had a choice!

What is helpful: To work around the phenomenon of reactance, you stop trying to persuade people and work to have people convince themselves.

You do this with four strategies:

  1. Provide a menu of options
  2. ask, don’t tell
  3. highlight a gap (i.e., a gap between what they might recommend to others and what they do themselves.)
  4. start with understanding their position and where they are coming from

What is interesting: When we are negotiating or arguing, we often spend a lot of fo time thinking about what we are going to say next…this is called “monitoring the conversation”. This does not allow us to be active listeners and being present for the other person. To allow agency for the other person (i.e., they believe they have options in the conversation), you must not be thinking of counter-arguments and concentrate instead on allowing the person to explain themselves and their position.

Summary of chapter based on the highlights:

As we work at changing our schools, we are always going to be faced with reactance. It will come from staff, learners, parents, Board members, your cat or dog…seriously, it will come from everywhere. Remembering that everyone (especially in the good ol’ US of A) wants to have at least the illusion of choice, we can follow these simple steps to provide that choice for people, which will prevent the “ant-persuasion” radar from engaging.

Chapter 2 Endowment

What is unique: Endowment is the second consideration when you want to change someone’s mind. Basically, endowment has to do with the status quo. People are hesitant to move away from doing something they are already doing and are comfortable with. We are attached to the behavior or endowed with it.

What is helpful: To help people change, they have to see that the advantage of changing will be at least twice as good as the disadvantages of changing. The cost between the benefits of staying in the status quo and the risk of changing is called a “switching cost.”

There are two ways to ease endowment.

  1. Surface the cost of inaction (let people know the cost of doing nothing)
  2. Burn the ships (Take the option of inaction off the table by not having the choice that is keeping them in the status quo)

What is interesting: Trying to convince someone to change by telling them how great their life will be if they make the change simply will not work. You must work to create a narrative of how their lives will be worse if they do not change. This is done by surfacing the cost of inaction.

Summary of the Chapter:

When I was a guidance counselor, a veteran teacher was not happy with some of the changes I was making in his schedule (I made the master schedule for the high school). In his frustration, one day, he barged into my room and said, “In your zeal to do good, you’ll ruin everything!” He was stuck in the status quo. he did not want to change. Interestingly, I burned the ships. I refused to call a course he taught “AP Biology” because he refused to have the kids take the AP test. I figured that since he was not allowing the learners to take the test, the class should not be called an “AP” class. So I took that option off the table. After much brow furrowing and hand wringing, he relented and encouraged the learners to take the AP exam.

Chapter 3 Distance

What is unique: Distance is the third consideration when you want to change someone’s mind.

What is helpful: All of us have a “region of rejection” and a “zone of acceptance.” Picture a football field with the region of rejection and zone of acceptance laid out. Your goal is to avoid conversation deep in the region of rejection. If you approach someone in their region of rejection, then they are going to, you guessed it, reject the change you are trying to make. People have something called the confirmation bias. People will view “facts” and meld them into their world view. Give a staunch political conservative, and a dedicated political liberal the same facts, and they will draw two very differing opinions on what they see. They are confirming the facts to their worldview. To help facilitate change, we must provide distance away from the region of rejection and toward the zone of acceptance.

There are three ways of doing this.

  1. Find the movable middle (If you think your entire staff is being resistant to change, find those staff members that are not as deep in the region of rejection and work on bringing them along to your way of thinking. Think about the group of staff members that really need the change you are suggesting. Once other people see the success of this group, you will lessen the distance from the region of rejection and zone of acceptance.
  2. Ask for less ( This is simple, Don’t ask for too much or require too much change at first. Go in steps that people can digest)
  3. Switch the field to find the unsticking point (Find a place where you agree with the person. You then can use the agreed-upon idea, value, action to pivot to the change you are asking them to make.)

What is interesting: Trying to convince someone to change by giving them facts and figures simply does not work. In fact, it often just makes them more convinced they are correct in what they believe or in what they are doing. In other words, changing false beliefs does not work by exposure to truth. Ouch. Educators are trained to believe that presenting the “truth” in a formal, logical sequence will open people’s minds, and they will “see the light.” Perish the thought. That is not how it works out here in the real world!

Summary of the Chapter:

Distance refers to moving the “field” so the person or organization that you are trying to change is closer to their zone of acceptance. I think this is interesting for us as school leaders. Let’s say you want to make a change that will lead your school or school district to be radically learner-centered. You can’t lead the change with “Tomorrow we are going radically learner-centered.” You have to use nuance to discover where your people are on the field. More importantly, you must put in the work to understand what they believe and then work to get them closer to the zone of acceptance. This does not occur overnight or within a year. This is a multi-year process.

Chapter 4 Uncertainty

What is unique: I love the framework that is created in my head when the author talks about “the uncertainty tax.” Overall, people are risk-averse. The uncertainty tax is what you pay as a change agent when introducing change to a person or an organization. Basically, the more change involves uncertainty, the less likely people will be willing to change. As a matter of fact, uncertainty makes people pause in their decision-making process…something that you cannot afford if you are changing school or school district.

What is helpful: Getting people (or organizations) to “unpause” is important. Here are some ways to do it.

  1. Trialability (I like doing pilot programs that allow you to find the right people to try the change on a small scale. Pilots also keep failure in a small realm.)
  2. Harness Freemium (Freemium is when you give something away for free, and if the person wants to add more features, they pay for it.)
  3. Reducing upfront costs (This is just what it sounds like. In school leadership, you want to consider what an upfront cost is, and it may be more than money.)
  4. Drive discovery (Allow people to work with and get to know the change you are trying to make. Going back to pilot programs from trialability, the pilot programs allow people to participate or observe the changes you want to make on a small scale. This is often psychologically safer than just trying to make the change on a mass scale.)
  5. Make it reversible (How can you build in a “take-back” as they learn the change?)
  6. Take advantage of inertia (People are less willing to change when they are comfortable with what they have been doing. If you can get them to try some small change then they can now view that change as “theirs” and will be more willing to keep it.)

What is interesting: The strategies laid out to confront uncertainty are tailor-made for businesses. However, you can use the same strategies in your change process in schools. Having a business or marketing mindset is not a bad thing for school leaders. Reflecting on these 6 strategies, and adapting them to your school environment, will help you accomplish the changes you seek.

Summary of the Chapter:

Thinking about the uncertainty tax when you are contemplating change is something you need to do. Moving people away from the status quo is hard…it’s hardwired in their psyche not to change. Taking small steps and making failure survivable with pilot programs will help you as you lead change in your school or school district.

Chapter 5 Corroborating Evidence

What is unique: The idea of translation is interesting in this context. I will quote directly from page 183 of the book for the definition: “When someone hears a recommendation, they try to make sense of it. To sort out what the recommendation means. Does it say something about the thing being recommended, or does it say something about the recommender themselves….. [If someone recommends a TV show,]does that mean I’ll like the show?” People are constantly translating what you are saying and trying to determine whether or not just because you like something within the context of your values and beliefs, does it mean I will like the same thing based on my values and beliefs?

What is helpful: When thinking about strategies to use corroborating evidence effectively, think of who, when, and how

  1. Who else to involve (who does the person whose mind you are trying to change need to hear from to help them change their mind?)
  2. When to space corroborating evidence over time (giving someone a lot of information at once can be effective. At times, however, information spread out over time is helpful. The former is called the firehose strategy, and the latter called the sprinkler strategy. Use the sprinkler method when there are weaker attitudes to change. use the firehose when there are more entrenched attitudes to change.)
  3. How to deploy scarce resources when trying to change minds on a large scale.

What is interesting: Doing research and coming up with evidence of why people need to change is important…especially for those of us involved in trying to change schools. Collecting the evidence and sharing it with staff is not enough. We have to be purposeful about the who, when and how, the information is presented to people. Underlying this is the fact that you understand the person’s “why.” If they are entrenched in their beliefs, then a firehose strategy will be necessary and effective, especially if it comes from the right people.

Summary of The Chapter:

Being reflective and purposeful about the use of information (evidence) is necessary to make change in schools. There is a saying that everyone is an expert about schools because they attended one. Changing the minds of people that believe they are an expert takes more than just exposing them to evidence. Discovering their level of entrenched attitudes and using any o combination of all of the strategies in this book will help you lead change in your school.

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
View all posts by Tom Butler, Ph.D. →

2 thoughts on “An Educator’s Book Review: The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind

  1. Based upon Dr. Butler’s recommendation, I used one of my audiobook credits to purchase the book. I was not disappointed! The concept and approach are centered around relationships and respect for others. Great book!

  2. The change process . . . very good suggestions. My colleague Jessica Enderson will enjoy your take on the book. I will share this book and your blog with Jessica. Jessica is now working with a school system in Baltimore that wants to get involved with MCL4YLs.

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