What does the high school physics image of two springs holding a block between them teach us about behaviour change?
The psychologist Kurt Lewin described our behaviour as an equilibrium between “driving forces” that push us in one direction, and “restraining forces” that push us the other way. Behaviour change can be brought about by either increasing the driving force or decreasing the restraining force. If we wanted the block to move to the left, we could either increase the driving forces pulling it leftward or decrease the restraining forces pulling it to the right.
Our default response is to increase the driving force – to shout slogans, run campaigns, bombard people with messages about company culture and shame them into changing behaviour. But this approach is often less effective than intended.
An alternative is to decrease the restraining forces that sustain the status quo. If the proposed change is as good as we think it is, why aren’t people doing it already? By asking that question, we understand whatever is holding people back from changing their behaviour and address it.
If you wish for people to reduce their consumption of factory farmed meat, making organic alternatives affordable and easily accessible will go a longer way than sloganeering and shaming people into changing their dietary habits.
But why is the approach of reducing restraining forces superior? When we increase driving forces, in effect, we create more tension in the system. Both sets of springs coil pull the block tighter. Whereas reducing the restraining forces reduces the overall tension in the system. All concerned parties are more at ease with the latter form of behaviour change. A tense equilibrium is more unstable than a relaxed one.
What change do you intend to carry out? And what are the forces that restrain it?
Inspiration: An interview with Daniel Kahneman on the Knowledge Project podcast
3 thoughts on “Resolving tension to change behaviour”
Thanks for writing this, started looking for a visual example of what Kahneman was talking about
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Haha! Not sure if those scribbles above do justice to his sublime description of the concept, but thanks for stopping by 🙂