When we push people, they often push back: Jonah Berger

When we push people, they often push back: Jonah Berger

Human Capital interacted with Jonah Berger, Wharton professor and bestselling author, to understand why trying to change people's minds by marshalling arguments or providing more facts and reasons does not work well. He explains why successful change is not about pushing harder or exerting more energy, but about identifying what prevents change from happening and removing barriers.


Jonah also shares effective strategies for catalysing change on both the individual and organisational fronts.


In your highly acclaimed book, The Catalyst, your take on making change happen runs counter to much of the popular thinking and usual approaches that we see in the marketplace. What does your extensive research reveal about the methods that fail to change people’s minds?


Before answering what methods fail to change people’s minds, it might help to give a context of how I got started writing this book.


In 2013, after my book ‘Contagious’ came out, I got an opportunity to work with all sorts of companies and organisations, from Fortune 500s like Google, Nike, Facebook and Apple to small startups and everything in between.


From working with those organisations, I realised that everyone at the core was facing a very similar problem. They all had something that they wanted to change. People in marketing wanted to change consumer or customer behaviour, and salespeople wanted to change clients’ minds. Leaders would often want to transform organisations or organisational culture, and employees wished to change their boss’s or colleagues’ minds. Startups wanted to transform the way an industry did business, and nonprofits wanted to change the world.


But change is hard. As I worked with these organisations, I noticed that they would try thing after thing that often wouldn’t work.


Wondering about better ways to change minds and instill action, I started on this journey of writing a book.


I interviewed people from top-selling salespeople and transformational leaders to substance abuse counsellors and hostage negotiators and realised they were all doing something quite interesting.


When you look at the traditional approaches to persuasion, it’s often some version of what I call “pushing” – more facts, more reasons, giving people more information, making just one more PowerPoint presentation or thinking if we just tell them a little bit more about why we want them to change, they’ll come around.


If you push a chair in the direction you want it to go, it tends to move in that direction. But there’s one problem applying that same notion of pushing to people. When we push people, they often push back. They often do the exact opposite of what we want them to. Rather than coming around, they put up a lot of resistance, and they don’t change.


What, then, is a better approach to initiate and sustain lasting change?


A better approach actually comes from chemistry.


In chemistry, it often takes a lot of temperature and pressure for change to happen, but there’s a special set of substances that scientists use to make change take place faster and easier. These substances clean the grime on our contact lenses and the engine of our cars, but they don’t add more heat or pressure. They don’t push harder. What they do is lower the barriers or the obstacles to change. These substances are called catalysts.


The same idea is applicable in the social world. Great catalysts don’t create change by pushing harder but by removing barriers. Rather than saying, “What could we do to get someone to change?” great catalysts say, “Why hasn’t the person changed already? What obstacles or barriers are getting in the way? How can we remove them?”


What are the key barriers that often get in the way of making change happen?


There are five common barriers that inhibit change. I’ve put them in a framework called The REDUCE (Reactance, Endowment, Distance, Uncertainty, and Corroborating Evidence).


Each of these barriers repeatedly prevents change from happening, regardless of industry or situation.


Reactance: When pushed, people often push back.


Endowment: People are attached to what they’re doing already and have a status quo bias.


Distance: If you ask for too much change, people won’t even consider it.


Uncertainty: There is a fear or anxiety around not knowing. New things always involve uncertainty and have some switching costs of change.


Corroborating evidence: Sometimes, it is not enough for one person to say change is needed. You may need multiple sources to provide enough evidence for the change to take effect.


By understanding what these barriers are and mitigating them, we can change anything.



Catalysts reduce reactance, ease endowment, shrink distance, alleviate uncertainty, and find corroborating evidence.


In making people understand the science of reactance, you talk about the “Tide Pod Challenge,” which involved people eating detergent capsules and filming it. Why did P&G’s efforts to tell people not to eat laundry capsules backfire?


Tide, owned by Procter and Gamble, created Tide Pods to make doing laundry faster and easier. When Tide Pods came out, they did okay. However, there was a problem: people were eating them.


You might say, “Well, aren’t they made of chemicals? Why are people eating them?” Indeed, they are made of a lot of chemicals, but a funny video online and a funny article in a major publication meant that young people, mostly teenagers, were soon challenging one another to eat these things online.


Imagine you’re a Tide executive in this situation. You think it’s ridiculous that people are doing this, but just in case, you release a sternly worded announcement saying, “Don’t eat Tide Pods.” You also hire celebrities to tell people not to eat Tide Pods. You post these statements and videos online. You think this will be the end of it and people will stop eating Tide Pods. However, the exact opposite happened. When told not to eat Tide Pods, interest in the Tide Pod challenge shot up, and visits to poison control increased as well.


Essentially, a warning became a recommendation. Telling people not to eat Tide Pods made them more likely to do it.


The reason is reactance—when we push people, they don’t just go along; they push back. People want to feel like they have freedom and control over their choices.


When someone else tries to tell them what to do, it impinges on their sense of freedom and autonomy, and they react. They push back, saying, “Who are you to tell me what to do? I will do whatever I want. And rather than doing what you want, I’m going to do the opposite.” It doesn’t matter whether that opposite is eating Tide Pods when someone tells you not to or refusing to buy something when someone encourages you to buy it.



We have an ingrained antipersuasion radar that kicks in when persuasion is happening and pushes back. We avoid the message, or even worse, we counter-argue. We think about all the reasons why something is a bad idea and go against it.


How can we give people their sense of freedom and autonomy back?



We have to allow people to make choices. We should not persuade them, but encourage them to persuade themselves, not sell them, but get them to buy-in.


There are various ways to do this: from providing a menu and giving people choices, to asking rather than telling, to highlighting a gap.


A simple example is that in meetings, we often present people with one option, and they counterargue, saying, “Oh, this is why it won’t work. This is why it’s a bad idea.”


Smart salespeople and consultants give people multiple options and then ask, “We could do this or that. Which do you like better?” This subtly shifts the role of listeners from thinking about all the reasons they don't like what you're suggesting to thinking about which of the options is a better fit for them.


We often try to enroll people in change by backing it up with evidence and facts — be these proof that global warming is real or that the current business strategy adopted is not working. Why does this approach to changing minds not work very well?


Part of the challenge is the third barrier I talk about, which is distance.


Anytime we’re trying to persuade someone’s mind, it’s almost like we have different positions on a football field. Think about politics, for example. One end is very conservative. One end is very liberal. Everyone can place their point of view somewhere on that field. Someone might be in the end zone of the liberal side, and someone might at the end zone of the conservative side. Someone might be at the 50-yard line, halfway between conservative and liberal. But, wherever they are on the field, there’s a range of information around that spot that they’re willing to consider. Maybe 5 or 10 yards in each direction is what they’re willing to consider. That’s called the zone of acceptance. But beyond that, information falls on what’s called the region of rejection. It’s not only that they won’t be persuaded by this information, but they won’t even consider hearing it.



When we deal with distance in trying to change minds that are too far away, facts alone are not going to work. While we might think they’re facts, the other side thinks it’s biased information, and so they’re unwilling to consider the information in the first place.


I tell a great story in the book about a doctor who persuaded someone to lose weight. The guy was drinking a huge amount of Mountain Dew, three litres a day. Rather than trying to get him to quit cold turkey, the doctor started by asking him to try cutting his soda intake to two litres and drinking a litre of water. When he eventually went from drinking three litres of Mountain Dew to two a day, she suggested to cut it down to one. Only when he was able to do that, did she ask him to cut out soda entirely.


So rather than trying to move people all the way across the field in one full swoop, ask for less and then ask for more.


Breaking a big change into manageable chunks and starting with smaller asks makes it more likely to happen.


Many change initiatives start with a bang but run out of steam after some time. What can leaders do to keep the momentum from fizzling out and lead successful change within their organisations?


I think the challenge often is that everybody has the status quo bias. Everybody has loss aversion. Everyone’s attached to what they’re doing already.


You might think, “Oh, we’ve been doing this project for a while. We should stick with it, even though it’s not doing great, because we put so much money and effort into it. If we start something new, who knows if this new thing will work.”


It’s important to think not about what you have already done, but about whether you would recommend someone else start this thing. Given what you know about a project or approach, would you recommend it to someone else?


If you wouldn’t recommend it to someone else right now, why are you still doing it? It’s because you have the status quo bias. That’s it. You’re only sticking with it because of everything you’ve invested in it so far, not because it’s worth doing.



Leaders must think about easing endowment to make people realise that what they’re doing already isn’t costless. There are a lot of costs to sticking with the status quo.


To know more about Jonah and his work, visit

With 5+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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