Reasons Behind Change Resistance
February 4, 2024

Change in the business world can sometimes feel like convincing your stubborn teenager to try a new cuisine. Challenging, to say the least. But fear not, esteemed business leaders! Understanding the quirks of human psychology, biology and sociology behind our resistance to change can equip you with the tools to navigate these choppy waters and steer your organisation towards success. Well, at the very least, it’s not going to make things worse.

Psychological reasons 


Psychologically speaking, our brains are wired to stick to routines like a fly to a sticky note. If change were a game show, our amygdala – the brain’s drama queen – would be the contestant screaming ‘no deal!’ at every opportunity. There are three key reasons why we, as humans, resist change:

  • Fear of the unknown,
  • Loss aversion,
  • Cognitive biases.


Fear of the unknown

Starting with fear of the unknown, humans tend to feel more comfortable with what is familiar and predictable. Whilst familiarity provides a sense of security, uncertainty is inherently tied to change and can evoke fear. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Sports Psychology supports this, finding individuals preferred predictable situations over uncertain ones, even when the outcomes were objectively better in uncertain conditions. Building upon this in a corporate context, an article published in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrated that consumers were more likely to stick with familiar brands and products, even when faced with potentially better alternatives. Now, don’t get me wrong, humans’ fear of the unknown clearly works in your favour if you build brand loyalty among your customers, but not as much when you’re trying to introduce a new technology to your team.


Loss Aversion

In addition to this, the risk of loss is increased in uncertainty and by our very nature, humans are often more motivated to avoid losses than to acquire gains. Due to this, our perception of the reward associated with making a change is often vastly reduced from reality, and often, many of us conclude that the change is too large a risk. For example, picture rolling out a new CRM system throughout your organisation, which will save employees up to 30 minutes a day due to being more efficient. Humans who are used to the old system will often see the two hours it will initially take to switch over as more costly than the potential 30 minutes a day that will be saved in the future. 

Loss aversion stems from the psychological principle that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of gaining something equivalent. People, therefore, must be sure that what they will gain in return is significantly better than what they already have. Research supports this with Kahneman and Tversky finding that individuals valued losses approximately twice as much as equivalent gains.  


Cognitive Bias

Finally, cognitive bias, such as confirmation bias or status quo bias, can influence decision-making and make individuals resistant to change. Behavioural economists Ariely and Kahneman have extensively documented the various cognitive biases and their significant impact on decision-making. Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts or patterns of thinking that can lead to deviations from rationality and objectivity regarding decision-making. For example, a study found that individuals tend to seek information confirming their beliefs, reinforcing resistance to change. If, for example, one is convinced that a new technology will not be adopted by consumers, confirmation bias would encourage them only to notice information supporting their belief. A more simplistic example of this is that everyone has experienced at some point when they are looking into buying a new car. Once you’ve investigated and learned more about a certain model, you start noticing that car everywhere. Why? Has the number of consumers owning this car tripled overnight, or is your brain registering the car where, previously, it would have faded into the background? The same thing happens when investigating a proposed change that your against.


Biological Reasons 


Humans’ resistance to change goes far beyond psychological reasons, with various biological elements contributing towards this personality trait.  

Firstly, the brain actively prefers routine over randomness. The brain is wired to conserve energy and create neural pathways that support habitual behaviour, leading to a preference for routines and resistance to change. Habitual behaviour allows the brain to streamline cognitive processes and reduce the cognitive load associated with decision-making. Neuroscientific research conducted at MIT revealed that the brain forms neural circuits to automate routine behaviours, reducing the need for conscious decision-making.  

Secondly, the role of the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, can activate during times of change, triggering a flight-or-fight response and contributing towards this resistance. The amygdala plays a vital role in processing emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, and can perceive change as a threat to safety. Research has shown that the amygdala exhibited increased activation when individuals were exposed to uncertain or ambiguous situations, indicating its role in processing potential threats. It’s unsurprising then that another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that individuals with larger amygdala volume showed higher levels of trait anxiety and were more resistant to accepting new, unfamiliar situations. 


Social Factors 

There are also a range of social factors contributing towards this resistance, including conformity to social norms, cognitive dissonance and past experiences.  

Starting with social norms and the desire for conformity, humans have a natural inclination to conform to society and maintain a sense of belonging, which can make them resistant to changes that challenge established norms. Research conducted by Solomon Asche demonstrated how individuals often conformed to the opinions of a majority group, even when it contradicted their own judgements.  

Secondly, cognitive dissonance arises when individuals experience a conflict between their beliefs or attitudes and new information or ideas, leading to resistance to change. Humans strive for consistency and coherence in their beliefs and attitudes, and encouraging information that contradicts these can create discomfort and resistance. This is evidenced by a classic study conducted by Festinger and Carlsmith, which demonstrated how individuals experienced cognitive dissonance and resisted changing their attitudes when faced with information that challenged their existing beliefs.  

Finally, past experiences can contribute towards resistance, with negative past experiences creating even more aversion to change as individuals may fear repeating negative outcomes or encountering new challenges. William Bridges describes this phenomenon in his book ‘Managing Transition’ highlighting how individuals’ perception of the risks and uncertainties associated with change can shape their resistance and willingness to embrace new ways of doing things. Playing out the new CRM example again, if when working in a previous organisation, the switch over to the new system actually took four hours rather than two, this is going to cement further the resistance to change. 

Understanding the complex interplay of psychological, biological, and social factors behind resistance to change is crucial for business leaders seeking to navigate organizational transformations effectively. By acknowledging these human tendencies and strategically addressing them, leaders can foster a culture more receptive to change, ultimately driving their organizations forward in an ever-evolving business landscape.

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